Sunday, December 10, 2006

The case for accent Anglophobia

If ever Americans needed a reason to redirect their traditional disdain of the French across the English Channel, Sarah Lyall of the New York Times unwittingly provides one:
Cruel BritanniaWhether Britons are objectively cleverer and more amusing than Americans, or whether they just sound that way, is one of the deep mysteries of British life . . . . Britons seem to have the advantage of accent: their exotic pronunciation can make even dubious observation sound like unimpeachable truth. They are also experts at the art of speaking coherently and with authority on topics they know little or nothing about.
Mari MatsudaThe cultural primacy that Americans award to the English accent -- something so singularly offensive to me that I devoted a considerable portion of Poetic Justice to condemning "acute Anglophilia" -- curiously extends to the Scottish, Welsh, and Irish variants of English. (Australia and New Zealand get little accent-based credit; neither Crocodile Dundee nor Gallipolli warrants the cultural "bonus" awarded to, say, Chariots of Fire or Brideshead Revisited.) Mari Matsuda was right: accent discrimination is both real and nasty; the British Isles get the big benefit, with bonus points for "charm" awarded to other accents of European provenance. Voices of America: Accent, Antidiscrimination Law, and a Jurisprudence for the Last Reconstruction, 100 Yale L.J. 1329 (1991).

I hasten to add, of course, that denigrating English and faux-English accents isn't the solution. Nor is this a terribly pressing problem. But it is annoying. No other country makes us feel bad about ourselves simply by talking. Ya basta. Perhaps the continued emergence of Spanish in ordinary American life will help undermine the curious hegemony of English, Scottish, Welsh, and Irish accents in the United States. Ojalá.

Accent-based Anglophilia is a self-inflicted national disease. The cure is within our control. Fellow Americans, do something patriotic. The next time someone proclaims in some sort of Anglophilic accent, "Well, I'm not an expert but . . . ," take that person at his word. Listen to someone else who knows what she is talking about, even if -- and perhaps especially if -- the voice of real expertise echoes the language of the streets of Brooklyn, Boston, Philadelphia, Biloxi, Hong Kong, or Guadalajara.

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