When was the last time that you mocked a stupid person? What kind of accent did you give that hypothetical idiot? Chances are, it was a Southern accent. If you hear someone speaking Southern-American English or African-American English and automatically assume that they’re uneducated, you’re reinforcing a negative stereotype that is far too acceptable in our society. The social stigma applied to various accents throughout the United States is not only disheartening; such stereotypes lack any basis in reality.
Linguistic prejudice, which is by no means limited to America, is an unfortunate, overlooked phenomenon. We all have accents, every single one of us. Most students at Binghamton University, myself included, speak some variety of the general American accent. Because of this accent’s widespread presence within our society, our media deems it the most “neutral” American accent. As a result, such an accent managed to shake off most negative stereotypes and regionalism. But what about the other countless accents that exist within the U.S.? From the Yat accent of New Orleans to the dialect of the Upper Midwest, both positives and negatives are associated with these less common accents.
For instance, Southern accents are associated (in the North) with rural folksiness and a lack of education. The latter of the two stereotypes is particularly damaging as it puts immense pressure on most southerners to change their accent when they want to sound intelligent. These negative stereotypes are symptomatic of the regionalism and classism that is deeply entrenched within American society. The Southern accent is rarely associated with academic positions. In popular culture, the accent is associated with blue-collar jobs or some hermit living in the middle of the woods. It is telling that the most well-known depiction of the Ozark variety of the Southern accent is by the main characters on “The Beverly Hillbillies.”
Why isn’t it okay to judge people based on their accents? There is no such thing as “correct English.” While each dialect may have internal grammatical structures and consistencies that should be followed, there is no linguistic basis for designation of any single one of them as “correct.” For example, if a native speaker of African American Vernacular English (AAVE) uses the phrase, “He been working” as opposed the general English phrase, “He has been working,” it’s completely acceptable because that usage is in line with AAVE grammatical rules. However, the AAVE speaker will still be judged as being lazy or stupid simply because his dialect is commonly associated with poor urban African American communities. Linguistically, there is nothing intrinsically wrong with that dialect and it is just as effective at conveying meaning from one person to another.
Accent and dialects can also be incredibly important to a person’s identity. After all, they are linguistic features that sometimes possess deep and meaningful historic ties to a particular region or community. If you wouldn’t judge someone based on his or her skin color, ethnicity or gender, then why would you judge them because of the way they talk?