Is there such a thing as an ‘authentic’ accent?

Individuals often possess certain expectations about behaviours which speakers or groups of speakers should exhibit in regard to language use. In order to analyse such language stereotypes, we need to find those public platforms where individuals are most likely to express such attitudes freely and openly. Interestingly, language attitudes can often manifest themselves in public domains such as social media sites, published documents as well as comment sections.  I find that the relatively unrestricted access to these sites allows us to influence and be influenced by the various attitudes held by members on these sites.

According to Burgoon and Siegel (2004) in certain situations, individuals will make judgements on what they consider to be appropriate and normal language use. These attitudes can lead to acceptance or rejection of the message being portrayed by the communicator. What truly surprises me is that these attitudes can manifest themselves in almost all forms of public speech from movie accents to talk shows. In fact, I found these attitudes existing quite prevalently in the comments section of (a) my all time favourite movie, ‘Con Air’ and (b) in a talk show interview between Graham Norton and Chris Pratt.

The following comments are presented below:

Graham Norton Show – Chris Pratt:

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Con Air (1997):

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The attitudes expressed under the comments section for the talk show mark a stark contrast to the comment section for Nicholas Cage’s movie ‘Con Air.’ Audiences are at once surprised to find that an American actor is able to convincingly portray an Essex accent whereas, Cage is repeatedly branded as a terrible actor for his portrayal of a southern Alabama accent.

The positive and negative views expressed can be accounted for using the language expectancy theory (Burgoon, 2004). Often, ‘individuals use language to conform to social norms; however, if the communicator deviates from this particular system intentionally, it can incite a positive or negative reaction’ (The Audiopedia, 2017). This is quite clearly the case for both Cage and Pratt who intentionally deviate from the expected behaviour for purposes of entertainment. As the theory assumes, Chris Pratt’s Essex accent is at once positively evaluated because commenters are wholly surprised to find that Pratt’s accent change conforms to the cultural values and societal norms attached to a competent performance of this accent. Furthermore, this simply adds to persuasiveness of the overall message and heightens the audience’s positive attitudes to Pratt. For example, commenters perceive Pratt’s acting skills as being ‘great’ simply because their personal expectations of the situation have been met and exceeded resulting in an exaggerated evaluation of the speaker’s behaviour.

Although to my ears Cage’s southern accent sounds faultless, this is not the case for many commenters who perceive his southern accent to be ‘insulting’ or ‘shitty’. Moreover, cage’s attempt to convincingly portray a southerner, raised in Alabama, is rejected by the audience. This is primarily because Cage’s attempts do not match the commenters’ perceived language ideals/expectations which reduces the persuasiveness of the message. However, what I find most interesting is that the one characteristic shared by all commenters, on both comment sections, was this unwavering belief in ‘authenticity’, and that they themselves knew what an ‘authentic’ Essex or Alabama accent sounded like. But is there really such a thing as an ‘authentic’ accent? Do all groups speak in the same way? I would argue that this is certainly not the case! Our perceptions and subsequent attitudes of language use are dependent on our personal experiences with speakers of these particular language varieties. For me, Cage performs in accordance to my stereotypes of southerners and therefore his performance is faultless; whereas, for many others his attempt ‘lies outside the bandwidth of socially acceptable behaviour’. In fact, rather than the actor’s scenes being taken seriously, they are instead mocked and ridiculed.

Yet, language attitudes often arise from exposure to these accents via public domains such as direct interaction, TV shows or adverts which may be contributing factor in how shared expectations and language stereotypes arise to begin with. This is precisely why we influence and are influenced by such public forums where any individual with a working WIFI can share their opinions.

For more on language expectancy theory, please visit:

Burgoon, M. and Siegal, J., 2004, Language expectancy theory: insight to application, in J. Seiter and R. Gass (eds.), Perspectives on persuasion, social influence and compliance gaining (pp. 146-64) Boston: Pearson.

 

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