Notes From the Urban/Rural Divide: Accents

I have an accent that most people would consider fairly innocuous. It is ‘standard.’ It is the kind of accent well-educated Californians have, one that sounds unremarkable to many ears and would not be considered unacceptable in public spaces, including in the corridors of power. I grew up with a native English speaker, interacted with lots of educated native English speakers in childhood, and continue to so, and therein lie the origins of my accent. It is a powerful and useful social tool, because I can sound authoritative when I speak. More than that, I can sound informed, confident, and, yes, educated.

I sound like a person who should be listened to, like someone who has something to say. In part, my accent is a class marker. It may not tell you how much money I make, but it tells you that I grew up in an educated household and interact with a specific social circle. It is also, to some extent, a locational marker. Most people in my rural area are close enough to the Bay Area to have accents very similar to mine. That is not the case with everyone, of course, but my accent is not uncommon here. No one looks at me oddly when I open my mouth, and I don’t sound like I am putting on airs when I speak to people in my community. My voice is ‘ordinary’ for the kind of locations I frequent.

When I’m out of state, it’s often obvious to tell that I’m from Somewhere Else, but my accent is usually considered inoffensive and within the bounds of normality. I may not be From Here, wherever Here is, but I clearly have the markers people look for when deciding whether to listen to someone, or turn away.

This is not the case with all people from rural areas. Some regions are more isolated by social and class barriers or simply geography, and they have their own distinct regional accents and sometimes dialects. They sound different. As with me, their accents are nothing extraordinary in their communities, but when they open their mouths somewhere else, their accents mark them clearly and unequivocally as ‘other.’ And not just other, but not worthy of respect.

Many well-educated people who grew up in urban areas on the West Coast have accents similar to mine. There are also other urban accents from other parts of the United States, including lower-class urban accents. As with their rural counterparts, lower class urban people have voices that become social markers used to isolate them. They don’t ‘speak correctly’ and this makes them targets for a number of embedded associations about what your accent says about you and who you are.

There is a very common belief that rural accents are markers of poor education and limited intelligence, as well as poor manners. If you ‘sound country,’ you are clearly not worthy of interacting with educated people from urban areas. This has been a continual joke in pop culture for literally centuries; rural accents have been targets of fun in plays, songs, stories, film, and television for a very long time. All you need to do is insert a character with key markers of rural origins, and whether the drama is set for a Chinese audience or a US one, people will instantly get the reference. They understand what is being said through that character and with that character’s voice.

Rural Southern accents in particular are highly stigmatised in the North, particularly in these oh-so-enlightened urban hotbeds of intellectualism in places like San Francisco, Chicago, and New York City. People attempt to imitate rural accents when they make fun of each other, they tease people with Southern accents, they make dismissive comments about public figures who have obvious Southern accents. Many of my friends from the South have two voices; the one they use in public and in interactions with people from outside the community, and the one they use in private among friends and family.

They have learned this as a survival tactic, because they are not taken seriously when they use their original accents, especially if they come from lower-class Southern backgrounds. So they have developed different voices to use for different audiences, in full awareness that they need to conceal part of their identity if they want to be respected. People are sometimes surprised to learn about their real accents, because they hide them so thoroughly.

Accents are complex social markers; they can betray someone’s geographical and racial origins, class, and native tongue. They can be tools for accessing power and control, and they can also be used against people, to keep them in lesser positions and remind them that they are not considered members of society. If you have an accent people consider rural, you’re a hick with no redeeming qualities, in the eyes of people with cultivated, educated accents. Your opinion doesn’t matter, you have no potential, you aren’t educated, and you probably have narrow-minded conservative politics.

All because your accent. Simply by opening your mouth, you put yourself in a position to be judged and classified by people who may not even be listening to the words, because they are listening to your accent and making decisions about you on the basis of what they hear. Or think they hear. They hear the country in your voice, and think that means they know something about you. Who cares what you’re saying, when your voice says it all?