How accents and dialects drive our perceptions

June 12, 2012

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When we picture a Southern belle we probably have an image in our heads of how she looks. But our perception is about more than meets the eye; it's also about what hits the ear. What would the Southern belle of our collective imagination be without a sweet, soft drawl?

But are these assumptions harmless, or terribly destructive? Janet Sedlar, a sociolinguist at University of Chicago, argues that people can form real prejudice and discrimination from how others talk. She says that in French Canada there are groups that believe the lineage of the French language drawn from Europe is more prestigious than more rural strains of the language. Some speakers also value English more than French because the French were originally an agricultural people. She says they identify English as more urban and academic.

For Sedlar, there is no right or wrong in accents and dialects. In her line of work she sees the value in all ways of speaking. Sedlar argues that hip-hop artists may not always speak with the same refinement as a professor, for example, but their artistic license allows for more freedom with language; it's how they can sound more authentic in their work. Sedlar says there's value in this as we don't want to all sound the same. An accent or dialect reflects where we come from and who we are.

Of course some accents are easier to spot than others. Americans may be quick to lump many accents from the UK as "British" but as actress Amy Walker demonstrates in the below video, differences in British English can be heard in natives of London, Southern England and Northern Ireland, to name a few.



(Walker gained internet fame when the above video went viral and she got an extra boost when former White Stripes frontman Jack White featured her on his latest album.)

While sociolinguists like Janet Sedlar hear the beauty in all languages, others aren't always so forgiving. Sedlar joins Worldview to explain how accents and dialects can drive discrimination.

Callers can tell their stories, too. Call 312-923-9239 to share stories of how your accent or dialect has hindered-or helped-you through situations.