Do I Have an Accent? Does That Bother You?
The psychology of accents: Learning from the success of Irish-Americans.
Posted Mar 16, 2018
Scott Fitzgerald, one of my favorite authors, was of Irish descent.
There are many writers, but also artists, athletes, police officers, politicians...of Irish descent in the United States. In 2016, according to the American Community Survey, over 10% of the US population (32 million people) claimed Irish ancestry. That is more than six times the present population of Ireland.
With St. Patrick’s Day approaching, and given the public celebrations in many places in the U.S., it is easy to forget that this anniversary has its origins in Irish history.
But as you watch or participate in the St. Patrick’s Day celebrations, do remember that at one point the Irish, like other immigrants, were not welcome in the U.S.
Even so, one would imagine that the newly arrived Irish could not be easily identifiable as migrants. After all, the Irish shared much in common with Americans (culturally and appearance-wise) and many also spoke English—albeit with an accent.
Accent refers to one’s manner of pronunciation, and is shaped by many factors, such as one’s region of origin, social class, and ethnicity.1
In the 1800s, an Irish accent would have signaled that the speaker was likely one of the tens of thousands of poor immigrants fleeing the Irish famine/Holocaust. Even Scott Fitzgerald once referred to his mother’s family as a “straight 1850 potato famine Irish.”
Though it is not clear how easy it would have been an American to detect an Irish accent, generally speaking, people are very good at detecting foreign accents.
According to research, we are “extremely sensitive to cues of foreignness, detecting non-native speech in milliseconds...and in speech played backwards.” Further, “even when visible cues are present, we nevertheless turn to language—not appearance—to categorize a person as either belonging to our group or not.”2
But this sensitivity to others’ linguistic backgrounds has important consequences for speakers and listeners alike.
For example, people who speak with a non-standard accent are often seen as low in competence, intelligence, self-confidence, trust-worthiness...and social status. These biased perceptions “result in stereotyping, prejudice, and discrimination in all aspects of everyday life, including education, employment, and the media.”2
It is of course a legitimate concern when one’s coworker, teacher, doctor, etc, speaks with an accent so thick that she can not be understood. But since the judgment of whether someone can be understood has a large subjective component, this means that some people discriminate against others in the guise of comprehensibility concerns.
If you are told you have an accent….
1. Remember that everybody has an accent. The claim that someone does not have an accent simply means that she speaks in a neutral or standard accent. To a Bostonian, for example, a person from Great Britain, Ireland, or even Alabama, has an accent; but another Bostonian does not.
2. If you are being denied an opportunity simply because someone has decided that all of a sudden people can not understand you because of your accent, then it is possible you are being discriminated against.
Depending on where the discrimination takes place, you have different options. For example, if it occurs at work, you may report it to the human resources. You can also contact your local, state, and federal agencies. Needless to say, you have the right to freedom from discrimination.
3. In my view, many people mean well. The reality is that it takes more work to understand someone with an unfamiliar or thick accent. Just as you might find that it takes more effort to understand a friend who stutters a little. Patience and understanding is key, for both sides.
Many people have some understanding of your language struggles. They are immigrants themselves or have descended from immigrants; some are also learning a foreign language and know how difficult it can be to pronounce words in a way that sounds natural to native ears.
The old Americans did not exactly roll out the red carpet for the Irish. But the Irish persevered. Consider Fitzgerald’s relatives, the unwelcome “potato famine Irish” with their accents and all. They persevered and later became wealthy (in the wholesale grocery business).
It was his relatives' generosity that allowed Fitzgerald to live a comfortable life and to pursue an expensive education. And as we all know, Fitzgerald went on to write perhaps the greatest American novel, The Great Gatsby.
It is difficult to imagine a United States untouched by the Irish, by the many ways that they have enriched the American way of life and contributed to what makes US the special country that it is today. We celebrate St. Patrick's Day because it is now an American celebration. But also because it is Irish.
1. Giles, H., & Rakic, T. (2014). Language attitudes: Social determinants and consequences of language variation. In T. Holtgraves (ed.), The Oxford handbook of language and social psychology (pp. 11–26). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
2. Gluszek, A., & Hansen, K. (2013). Language attitudes and the Americas. In H. Giles & B. Watson (eds). The social meanings of languages, dialects and accents: An international perspective (pp. 26-44). New York, NY: Peter Lang.