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Episode 243 — Obsessed With Accents

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#1 July Diaz

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Posted 26 September 2013 - 04:03 PM

Andrew Ti and this week’s special guest Phil Yu wrap up the week by discussing a caller’s strange obsession with accents and let her know if she is racist. As always, leave us a message about anything you think is racist at (323) 389-RACE.
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#2 Jordan Reiter


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Posted 27 September 2013 - 09:04 AM

Okay, I recognize that it's going to be difficult to avoid sounding racist trying to defend behavior you already called racist, but as someone who enjoys accents too I'll explain where I'm coming from on this; I'm not sure if it's how the caller felt about them but might at least explain why *someone* would find accents fun to listen to.

I was born in the Midwest but mostly raised in the South and have I guess what you'd call a Dan Rather type accent. My accent makes it difficult to place me geographically. In many settings this is useful but it actually makes me stick out a bit in contexts where having a regional accent is the norm -- in some places in the South, for example, or in my now native Philly.

When I hear people speaking and they have a neutral accent I really only hear the words. But if they have an accent I'm less familiar with, or an accent that stands out, it sort of, I guess "seasons" the words so I get to experience the conversation on two levels. On the one hand I'm taking in what they're saying but at the same time I'm kind of enjoying just what their voice sounds like. This extends to language use too. For example in the Philadelphia region you have the "positive anymore". In most of the US anymore is just negative: "I don't __ anymore", "They don't have ___ anymore". In Philly, though, you can say things like, "There's a lot of traffic anymore" which basically translates to "There's a lot of traffic nowadays". So I don't know why -- maybe because of a small fascination with language -- hearing a little gem like the positive anymore in the midst of a conversation is like a little ping of fun in a sea of words.

I think accents also turn a lens your own language. You don't think about how words should really sound until you hear them pronounced differently than how you expect them to sound. For example, I was tutoring this guy in conversational English. He was Japanese and had trouble correctly pronouncing r and l distinctly. When he spoke, he would make a sound that was halfway between an r and an l and until I heard it I really didn't realize how close the two sounds were to one another.

I have a two year old and the way he says things is crazy. But as I listen to him trying out new words I realize things like just how close b and w are to one another, or just how insane the word "cereal" really is when you think about the shapes your mouth has to make in order to say it.

I'll grant that making judgements (positive or negative) about a person based on their accent is really problematic, and using accents to make judgements about a person's provenance is problematic too. And it's really, really problematic if you just listen to a person's accent and don't focus at all on what they're saying.

But I think if you're listening to someone, paying attention to what they're saying, and also enjoying their accent on top of it, I don't think that's racist.