A recent episode of “The Allusionist”, a podcast that deals with words, dealt with accents, and to a lesser extent dialect. Episode #63, The Evolution of Accents, was broadcast courtesy of Twenty Thousand Hertz, which is a podcast about sound. Helen Zalzberg, the Allusionist, asked and they agreed to share.
Briefly, the show started with the evolution of modern English – from 1500 to present – and expanded on the English from the 1600s on during the time that Britain colonized North America.
What was pointed out is that Britain has hundreds of accents, and the accent that we think of as typically British, commonly known as Received Pronunciation or RP, is a contrived accent invented with the intent of preventing miscommunication, as Britain colonized the world, between those still on the island and those in the hinterlands.
Going over all of the differences between accents in the south of England, those in the midlands, and those from the northeast is too great a discussion for here, and I’m frankly confused by many of the accents. What was mentioned casually is that accents serve to differentiate speakers. We move toward an accent to differentiate ourselves into geographic and social tribes. We resist sameness except within our own group where it is stressed.
So, if you have an accent from the southern U.S. – other than Florida – you will be recognized as a Southerner by English speakers in the rest of the nation, but among Southerners even slight variations are recognized and an individual can be identified as “not from around here.” The accent serves to identify an individual as having values and a background similar to yours, or not. The more dissimilar the more suspicious one becomes that you may be different.
Vowel shifts, consonant shifts, word order and the use of different words for the same concept all serve the purposes of accent and dialect to define one.
Furthermore, minorities change faster than majorities in accent and dialect.
Londoners from the poorer sections have had an almost secret language of slang that changes rapidly and prevents those from the outside from knowing what is being discussed. This process apparently began as thieves and street hustlers moved among outsiders.
In the U.S. the rapid process of vowel shifts that became associated with “Valley Girl” affected the way teens talked and it is now mainstream among those under 50. Not to be confused with Valley Girls, the Kardashians developed the strangled sound that distinguishes them and their would-be socialebrities from everyone else.
Other minority groups like those in the LGBTQ community have used their own jargon to distinguish themselves from the straight world. Likewise, African-Americans have had a rapidly evolving speech that has served the same purpose. Those on the outside use any of these words or phrases at their own risk because the terms rapidly become passe or the meanings change. Furthermore, some of the words used may be permissible for insiders but derogatory for outsiders.
Consequently, black Americans can call each other Niggah, but white people cannot use the “N” word. That’s as it should be, but personally, I don’t understand why the word is used at all, in any form. But, I understand that it is a form of social bonding. For about a month someone sent me texts thinking I was someone else. The first one read something like this, “Yo this Britney. This my new number. Wot up,my niggah?” Finally, after getting a lot of those, I texted back telling her that she had the wrong number. Her response was, “You sure?” Pretty sure.
In the late 1970s my wife worked in retail and became friends with a gay co-worker, Robin. The two both loved dancing, and Robin came to the house where they would practice disco routines. We began going to clubs where the two of them danced, and then we got invited to the gay disco clubs. Consequently, we got inundated with the language. Some of the gay men used to jokingly call L their little “fag hag”. We knew what it meant; a woman who hung out with gay men. Some were socially inept, some had been badly hurt by straight men, and some were homely. But some were like L. At the time it didn’t seem particularly offensive. Maybe the term has taken on a different meaning, because I used it recently to make a point and was called down for using a hateful, derogatory slur. So, the comment was edited.
This is the danger of using “insider” language. Any outsider runs the risk of getting it wrong. It may only mark you as “not from around here”, or it may be seen as hateful and offensive.
Accents are difficult to convey in a podcast and impossible in writing. Dialects can be written, but can get one in trouble. Mark Twain, who has been called the Father of American Literature, has recently been castigated for the use of the “N” word. What he did at the time - write the way average Americans talked - was not well received by the Eastern elite, even then, not because of the “N” word, but because it was too vulgar, as in the original meaning of the word, common. The gift of Twain’s writing is that it directly addressed issues of race and privilege and preserved the spoken language of the average person at the time for future generations.
Even Twain’s wife, Livy, was offended by Huckleberry Finn. She reportedly read the book, set it aside, and didn’t talk to her husband for several days. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is now considered a classic.
Y’uns have a good day.