Commentary: A word about accents

Somewhere along about 30 miles south of Des Moines on I-35, the speaking accent of the locals changes from essentially Northern to essentially Southern. I know this because I’ve driven between the Twin Cities and Oklahoma for 43 years and I’ve stopped at every sign of civilization—and non-civilization—between Bevington and Decatur City. Those towns roughly define the latitudes of a slice through Mid-America from western Ohio to mid-Nebraska generally considered to be most accent-free in the United States, the territory which spawned Johnny Carson and David Letterman.

I’m delighted that, against all odds, we still have accents in our electronic blather-saturated world. They are alive and well, and they don’t seem to be going anywhere any time soon. In popular culture, however, some of them have acquired mantles that are unkind and inaccurate and nigh impossible to shrug off. Let’s look at a couple.

Southern accents sound stupid. Don’t blame me for writing this; I don’t make the rules. And, heck, I speak fluent Southern myself, so I’m loath even to mention it. Notwithstanding, the fact is that wherever and whenever slowness, ignorance or stupidity are to be portrayed, out comes the drawl and, bingo, instant village idiot.

Growing up four blocks from the University of Oklahoma, I knew plenty of people whose accents were Cletus the Slack-jawed Yokel but whose words were Pliny the Elder. But I watched television and I went to the movies, and I fell for the grand imposture of accent bias at an early age. It is some salvation that oftentimes in the end a Southern-accented character turned out to be, if not educated, at least wise, like Sheriff Andy Taylor in The Andy Griffith Show, and we would say, “Well, what do you know. Turns out that hick’s pretty smart after all!”

So, we’ve got stupidity, coarseness and ignorance covered by the Southern accent. How to communicate sophistication and intelligence? Why, the beloved British accent, of course. It speaks to us on our phones, in our elevators, on our car GPSs and pretty much everywhere else we need to be communicated with and, man, does it sound smart! We’ve become thoroughly hooked on it, and we trust it. Be honest, now: would you let a GPS with a Southern drawl guide you to Ikea? And our Anglophilia doesn’t stop there. Remember when there was a contest to name the new horserace track in Shakopee? We were supposed to submit names that reflected our Minnesota culture. And the winner? Canterbury Downs, of course. We just couldn’t resist.

From the myriad accents in England, popular culture has, for its convenience and ours, distilled three easily recognizable ones:

  • The aforementioned elevator patois is what I’ll call the London accent.
  • Then, there is what might be termed the High British accent, which conveys snootiness or regency, or both, and is usually spoken by someone who has no time for the likes of you or me.
  • And finally, the Cockney is the accent used to denote the lower-class and supposedly uneducated (but blimey if the bloke doesn’t often turn out to be the brightest one of all, just like Sheriff Andy). Cockneyism often sports refreshingly unbridled candor and the laughter that goes with it, as with the rag pickers selling old man Scrooge’s cloth goods in A Christmas Carol. Note that these folks, in our cultural bubble, are usually having far more fun with far less than the High British and London speakers.

These British variants made their way into the larynxes of stage actors early on because, well, they were British actors performing British works. It makes sense still today for Shakespeare to be performed with various British accents. The extension, however, of this custom to classical Roman and Greek literature and drama challenges objectivity. I assume that British actors were the first English speakers to perform these works, and I guess it’s only natural that this would perpetuate itself and, ultimately, make the leap into motion pictures. It’s hard to imagine Pontius Pilate without a High British accent (and, of course, the Roman soldiers driving Jesus to the mount have to have Cockney accents). This is so ingrained that, like our elevators, any variance from that norm sounds like a comedy bit.

And so, Prosit—and apologies—to exploited accents everywhere, and I’ll close by airing one of my pet peeves. In the movies, accents are exaggerated to the point of irritating absurdity. The makers of the film Fargo, for example, must have felt that we, the audience, needed to be smacked in the face with larded-on Scando-American accents until we finally said, “Oh, I get it. That’s how people talk in the Upper Midwest.”

And, heck, maybe we do. What do I know? Like I said, I don’t make the rules.

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