February 15, 2006

Doomed to mediocrity by accent?

The following remarkable statement, pointed out to me by Jan Freeman, was reported in the Boston Globe from an affidavit given by Mrs Priscilla Matterazzo to State Police Detective Lieutenant James Connolly:

Priscilla Matterazzo told Connolly that her daughter returned to Massachusetts with her husband and baby in part because, the affidavit said, "Neil would never amount to anything in England because of his accent: He was obviously a coal miner's son from a working class background."

Here's the background, which relates to a case that is in the news a lot in the Boston area. In 1999 a young man named Neil Entwistle met a young American woman named Rachel Souza at the University of York (my undergraduate alma mater), where she was spending a year abroad in Britain. In 2003 they married, and in April 2005 they had a baby, Lillian. They moved to Massachusetts. In early January 2006 they moved into a rented colonial-style home in Hopkinton, a suburb of Boston. But Neil left to return to his family in the English midlands early in the morning of January 21. That evening friends and family arrived at the Hopkinton house for a dinner party and found no one answering the door. On January 22, a search of the house revealed Rachel and 9-month-old daughter Lillian dead in bed under an obscuring pile of blankets. They had been shot. On January 25, Massachusetts detectives flew to England to investigate; on February 9, the British police arrested Neil; and today he has been returned to the Boston area. Priscilla Matterazzo is Rachel Souza's mother. The quote above is from an affidavit in the case against Entwistle.

Our interest here is the claim about language. As Jan Freeman comments, it is really difficult "to imagine a 27-year-old American with a university degree in electrical engineering thinking, much less telling his mother-in-law, that his accent doomed him to mediocrity in his home country." I certainly agree. There is some accent prejudice in the USA, but not quite to this extent.

I wish I could dismiss it as nonsense to say that having an accent that marks you out as being from a working-class home in Worksop, Nottinghamshire (near Sherwood Forest, in the middle of England) might alter your employment prospects in a downward direction. But it is undeniable that if you elide initial [h] and pronounce putt the same way you pronounce put, speakers of British English will instantly draw a few conclusions about your likely intelligence level, reliability, morals, etc. Such things form the subject matter of sociolinguistics. The potency of sociolinguistic facts should not be underestimated in any country or culture, but the effects of both region and class are particularly well known and well studied in the case of Britain.

It may sound like a ridiculous hard-luck story that should be lent no credence whatsoever (and certainly, I am not suggesting for a moment that it has any relevance to the issue of the killings); but it is not completely impossible to imagine that Entwistle believed this part of what he told his mother-in-law, or even that he might have had some justification for believing it.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at February 15, 2006 03:36 PM