Language, Dialect, and Reactance

ReadingBoyI have an accent. You have an accent. We all have accents. Nobody “doesn’t have an accent,” although you often hear people claim they don’t because they speak a particularly privileged accent.

For some reason, I hear this asserted most often by people from America’s Pacific Northwest. Not sure what they’re teaching kids in school up in Ecotopia, but Oregonians and Washingtonians should know that they also speak a dialect and have an accent, just like all us Muggles.

True, in most languages there is often an accent or family of accents accepted as a “standard” for communication, but these are still accents. It’s a silly prejudice to think of one dialect as “just talking” and all the rest as accents, as silly as the prejudice that led many ancient cultures to name themselves The (Real/Genuine) People while everyone else were “the tribes.”

Just as silly as the prejudice that leads many today to honor a socially privileged style of literature as “literary” while all other styles are mere “genres.”

This sort of social signifier carries a lot of emotional weight. People are very touchy and defensive about their speaking styles, their writing styles, their cultural styles. Here’s a personal anecdote that shows how this can really make life unnecessarily difficult for everyone:

I was in line at a fast-food restaurant recently, ordering lunch during my OPM-mandated half-hour relief from the salt mines. The woman behind the counter was, judging from her accent, a relatively recent immigrant. Listening to her exchanges with the customers in front of me, I was having a hard time understanding her and, noting she was also having a hard time understanding others, I was preparing to stifle my natural Appalachian drawl and shift to a more standard English accent.

The man in front of me in line was, judging from a cell-phone conversation while we were queueing up, a long-time resident of the States. Probably native. When it was his turn to order, he mumbled something that, spelled as spoken, would be, “sissinch spice chick sa’anch.”

My immediate thought was: Damn, dude, give the lady a break. She has a hard time enough with English without you dropping half of every word on the floor.

The woman asked for a clarification, and I thought the guy would be more careful the second time. I have a bad habit of expecting human beings to do the rational thing. What happened instead was reactance, a psychological phenomenon wherein someone who feels their autonomy threatened retreats deeper into the behavior they feel is being restricted.

Rather than shifting closer to some “standard” dialect, the guy dived even deeper into accent: “Sisin-spah chih sang!” He stressed the last three syllables, as if saying chunks of the words harder would make up for the fact that he’d left most of the sounds out.

Luckily, he also pointed at the menu board, and she was able to follow his gesture to the sandwich he wanted.

This little incident reminded me how cultural identities can be ironically reinforced by threat of assimilation and suppression, like a chemical solution becoming more concentrated under boiling heat. Interesting both for fiction writing and real-world politics.


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