February 16, 2005

Southern accent reduction courses cropping up from Texas to Kentucky?

A few days ago, David Donnell sent a link to an article by Noelle Landers in the Collegiate Times about "Southern accent reduction courses cropping up from Texas to Kentucky". These courses are apparently billed as a service to actors whose "accent might hold them back", but the story's author suggests that they are really aimed at upwardly mobile southerners who want to distance themselves from their regional roots.

We Language Loggers have been appropriately scornful in the past about people who think that people from the American south have "lazy mouths", or "sound as if you just woke [them] up", or signal low status and lack of intelligence by using regional pronunciations, words and syntactic constructions. It's been a while since Shaw had his phonetician Henry Higgins respond to Liza Doolittle's cockney "oh" by saying

A woman who utters such depressing and disgusting sounds has no right to be anywhere—no right to live. Remember that you are a human being with a soul and the divine gift of articulate speech: that your native language is the language of Shakespear and Milton and The Bible; and dont sit there crooning like a bilious pigeon.

adding to his upper-class male colleague Colonel Pickering

You see this creature with her kerbstone English: the English that will keep her in the gutter to the end of her days. Well, sir, in three months I could pass that girl off as a duchess at an ambassador's garden party. I could even get her a place as lady's maid or shop assistant, which requires better English. Thats the sort of thing I do for commercial millionaires. And on the profits of it I do genuine scientific work in phonetics, and a little as a poet on Miltonic lines.

We linguists don't do that anymore, in general. And as I explained in a post last summer, there's something heart-warmingly American about the (completely incoherent) view that a regional accent is a condition like obesity or a swollen ankle, which can be "reduced" to get closer to a "normal" way of talking:

In the U.S., the traditionally standard radio or television voice is perceived as being maximally bleached of all marked characteristics ("having no accent"). Linguistically this is nonsense, of course, but it does reflect a democratic set of values, in which the desired reference value is viewed as being at the middle or zero point of the descriptive space, rather than being at one extreme corner.

As I understand it, traditional BBC English, in contrast, is perceived by most people as being a marked value.

However, I'm not sure about the facts behind Noelle Landers' story. There's only one specific course cited:

Martin Childers, managing director of the Jenny Wiley Theatre in Prestonsburg, Ky., said his theater offers a course for middle and high school students who want to reduce their accent for acting purposes.

“We have very talented local actors who have the ability to work outside of this area, but their accent might hold them back,” he said. “A lot of people have to wait until they’re older to (take a course like this), so we’re offering it to them now.”

Although the original course was designed with teenagers in mind, Childers said that many adults have taken an interest as well and not for acting purposes.

“We’ve had quite a few requests from people who are not actors,” he said. “We’re going to extend the course to adults as well, because we’ve had so many requests for it.”

The main purpose of this course is to increase actors’ or professionals’ marketability in a world that might judge them on the way they speak, Childers said.

But the Jenny Wiley Theatre's educational outreach page doesn't mention any accent reduction courses..

The phrase {"southern accent reduction"} get no hits on Google. Looking for {"accent reduction"} gets 33,200, but of the top-ranked ten sites, only one is (barely) below the Mason-Dixon Line (McLouth Kansas, La Jolla CA, Plymouth MA, Carlsbad CA, Towson MD, Ann Arbor MI, Lyndonville VT, Pullman WA, Los Angeles CA, Royal Oak MI). This doesn't look like a specifically southern-states thing to me.

[Update: the starting point here seems to be this 2/4/2005 CNN story, based on an interview with Martin Childers of the Jenny Wiley Theatre in Prestonburg KY about "a new class that seeks to teach youngsters how to lose their Appalachian accents". There's no indication in the CNN story about other such classes springing up across the South; if I find out what Noelle Landers bases that claim on, I'll add the information here. ]


Posted by Mark Liberman at February 16, 2005 05:32 PM