Growing up in California, I didn’t give much thought to the way that I spoke. I sounded the same as everyone else. I sounded just like my parents, teachers and friends. Sure, I’d sometimes hear accents on TV, but I didn’t have a lot of contact with people who sounded much different than me.
It wasn’t until I became a teenager that I began to really notice differences in how people speak. I went to the national speech & debate tournament in Minnesota, and it was quite a wake-up call. I couldn’t believe how many kids from other parts of the United States had accents! There were our hosts the Minnesotans, the Texans, the New Yorkers, and my very favorite, that kid from Boston who we made say “coffee talk” over and over again because it just sounded so “cool”.
Who knew there were so many accents in the US?! I guess I was lucky I grew up with the neutral one.
It wasn’t until about five years after my Minnesota experience, while sitting in a tram in Switzerland, that I realized I actually might have an accent. Two young women (around my age at the time – 20 or so) entered the tram and found seats at the back. They spoke loudly and stretched their vowels in a way that was vaguely familiar. I thought, “OMG! Please don’t tell me I sound like that. Those girls are totally from California!”
It took not only leaving my home state, but also leaving my home country before I could even hear that there was a very specific accent in the area where I grew up.
This phenomenon is not unique. Most native speakers believe that their accent is neutral. Unless they come from a region that is stereotypically known to have an accent (like Texas, for example), they will usually say that they speak “normally”. Although, in my experience, even people from Texas have told me they don’t have accents.
The thing is, every accent is relative to the accent of the listener. The listener considers himself “normal” or “neutral” and measures the people he hears to himself. As far as I’m concerned, the “Queen’s English” – what we language lovers refer to as “Received Pronunciation” (RP) or the “gold standard” of pronunciation – is just one big, heavy accent!
KPLU radio in Seattle, Washington recently reported on some interesting research being done on the Pacific Northwest accent in the US. Linguists are tracking residents’ perceptions regarding the accents spoken in that region. They are finding that many residents can’t hear that they have an accent when their speech is compared to other varieties of American English. In addition, people have very real perceptions about different accents labeling them as “ghetto”, “redneck”, and “slang”, among other derogatory titles.
The truth is, there are 8 different dialects of English in North America alone. They have been documented on this fantastic, interactive map, where you can click on a location to hear real language samples from individuals living there. Another great resource, if you’re interested in listening to British accents, is a new database compiled by the British National Library during their Evolving English Exhibit.
So who has the neutral accent? Which accent should we emulate? If you follow my blog, you already know where I stand. There is no “neutral”, “proper” or “normal” accent…other than mine, of course!