Psycho Babble

What Prestige Sounds Like

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By Jessica Love

March 1, 2012


 

In America, prestige speaks with a British accent. Friendliness, however, sounds a lot like you.

Record a variety of people reading the same passage aloud —speakers from different regions of the English-speaking world—and then play those recordings to American college students. Ask the students for their first impressions about the speakers. Are they well-educated? Do they have good jobs? Are they funny? Would you trust them?

Historically, with a big enough sample (say, a few hundred people), you would have found two things. First, that the speakers of British English, particularly the upper-class dialect known as Received Pronunciation (RP, or “the Queen’s English”), would rate highest on measures of social status and power, such as wealth, education level, and assertiveness. Second, speakers with American accents (particularly the same American accent as the raters had) would score highest on measures of solidarity, such as friendliness and sense of humor.

What if you played these same recordings for Australians and New Zealanders? You’d still find that the RP speakers were rated as rich, smart, and powerful, but now the Australians or the New Zealanders would be the funny and warm ones.

So goes linguists’ traditional understanding of accent perception, an understanding shaped and reinforced by study after study in the 1970s and ’80s. The first finding is generally interpreted as a vestige of colonialism, the second as “accent loyalty.”

But the annoying thing is that social attitudes change drastically over time. Even the most exhaustedly replicated set of findings will eventually be out of date. So sociolinguists must entirely redo earlier studies (“revisit” is usually the euphemism used) to see if the original results still hold. In 2001, the late Donn Bayard of the University of Otago (in New Zealand), with colleagues Ann Weatherall, Cynthia Gallois, and Jeffery Pittam, presented several hundred American, Australian, and New Zealander undergrads with recordings of American, Australian, New Zealand, and English (RP) speakers all reading the same passage aloud. As in earlier studies, the college students rated the speakers on a number of factors.

To vastly oversimplify a large and complex data set, things looked a bit different this time around. First, American students rated the American speakers quite highly on all accounts (not just on measures of solidarity). Second, and most strikingly, the New Zealand and Australian students also rated the American speakers very highly across the board. These students actually rated the Americans speakers higher on measures of solidarity than they rated speakers of their own dialect.

Why might this have happened? Why are American accents suddenly so ubiquitous and admired? The authors held the media largely responsible. They argue that the change may “reflect a bowing to the inexorable pressure of American global hegemony in all its guises: fast foods, pop music, films, middle-class sitcoms, American ownership or part ownership of what were formerly New Zealand/Australian entities like rail, phone, and power networks, and even the adoption of Black American music, dance, and spoken idiom by the equivalent Maori and Pacific Island underclass in New Zealand.” Indeed, students in New Zealand, where the influence of the American media is even stronger than in Australia, had a more positive perception of American accents than did students in Australia.

The limitations of this study are legion. Participants rated just one male and one female speaker from each of the four dialects. The two speakers were not always judged similarly on all traits, suggesting that at least some of the differences in ratings can be attributed to idiosyncrasies in individual voices, rather than to regional accent. In addition, the college-student raters are almost certainly not representative of their entire countries.

But as real and daunting as these limitations are, it’s important to remember that no perfect study exists, on this or any topic. Yes, a few more speakers would have been nice. But studies like this, that wear their flaws on their sleeves, are important too. They tend to be most upfront about the fact that science at its best is a conversation: one study claims, another responds. “Facts” might be learned in the process, but there is absolutely no last word.

Speaking of which. The study I’ve just described was published back in 2001, and a lot has happened since. What does prestige sound like today? I’m sure someone’s on it.

Jessica Love recently received a Ph.D. in cognitive psychology and is currently a science writer and editor at Northwestern University.

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