The following short article appeared in this morning’s Washington Post, revealing that “Southern Accent Reduction” classes in Tennessee were cancelled after staff protests.
“Oak Ridge lab drops accent training for staff: Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee said Tuesday it will not try to get Southerners on its staff to disguise their distinctive drawls. Some Southern-born employees at Oak Ridge objected to a “Southern Accent Reduction” training program, and the national science and energy laboratory, which employs more than 4,000 people in eastern Tennessee, backed down. The class, which was to meet once a week in August and September, was advertised as being designed to “give employees a more-neutral American accent, and be remembered for what you say and not how you say it.” The class was withdrawn within hours after it was announced last week, communications director David Keim said.”
As an Aussie living in the United States, I often lament that people seem to focus on how I say things, rather than what I say. That being said, it’s a form of discrimination to attempt to force people to “lose” their accent. Moreover, it’s not as easy as a few elocution classes. The speaker has to want to change the way they speak; to diverge from their native accent and converge to a new one. It’s all about perceived prestige. Southern American English may be seen as a non-standard accent, but it has what is called “covert prestige” among its speakers. That is, it shows a sense of social and cultural solidarity, and gives speakers a sense of belonging to their community. For this reason, the “Queen’s English” might have overt prestige in England as an accent signifying wealth and education, but you won’t find the Cockneys speaking it in the local pub.
There is really no “neutral American accent”, as such. From East to West, there are numerous regional accents, even though Californians will tell you that the Texans are the ones with accents. However, as the Oak Ridge National Laboratory will be pleased to learn, the “Southern Drawl” is slowly on its way out. The American English accent is leveling due to the influence of the media. Not to mention the stereotypes and stigma attached to the accents.
At any rate, the Southern American English accent isn’t “wrong” or “inferior”, and its speakers aren’t “lazy” or “uneducated”. Southern American English is a fascinating part of the rich tapestry of accents to be heard in the United States.
Thanks to Gary Goldberg for drawing (drawling?) my attention to this article.