Accent discrimination betrays a small mind
IN THE EARLY 1790s French revolutionaries commissioned a priest, Henri Grégoire, to take a census of the languages spoken in France. His findings were eventually titled a “Report on the necessity and means to annihilate the patois and to universalise the use of the French language”. Grégoire was a pioneering believer in racial equality, a fact that may seem to fit oddly with his passion for eradicating linguistic diversity. But to him, it made sense: French was the language of liberation, and those without it could be kept in ignorance.
How very French, their British cousins might chuckle. The same people who introduced the metric system and (unsuccessfully) tried to replace the Gregorian calendar can seem to have a mania for top-down reform and standardisation. Now some Britons are chuckling to see this approach enlisted in the name of tolerance: on November 26th the National Assembly passed a law forbidding accent discrimination. If it gets through the French Senate, severe cases—say, denying someone a job because of how they speak—could result in three years in prison, or a fine of €45,000 ($55,000). How very French.
The country certainly has biases to amend. In America regional accents can be heard in the highest office in the land (Donald Trump’s New York, George W. Bush’s Texan). In Britain the BBC has expanded the variety of accents heard on its broadcasts. By contrast, regional accents in France are far tougher to find in high places. This makes it harder for the French to associate intelligence and competence with anything but standard Parisian. At best French politicians, like some elsewhere, switch between their local accent when in the areas they represent and the standard Parisian kind when in the capital or on television.
And French leaders face more than just condescension. When Jean Castex, who has a notable south-western accent, became prime minister, reactions were predictably patronising. But such snobbery can have serious consequences, notes Jonathan Kasstan of Westminster University. The political editor of France’s national broadcaster said Mr Castex’s pandemic guidance seemed less credible when delivered in his “patelin”, or village, accent.
In truth, some other countries are more like France than they may think. Beyond the BBC, it remains common in Britain to hear public figures belittled for how they speak. The liberal left indulges these prejudices, too. Alastair Campbell, erstwhile press secretary to Labour’s Tony Blair, mocked the Conservative home secretary, Priti Patel, on Twitter: “I really would prefer it if we had a home secretary who could pronounce the G at the end of a word.” Here snobbery is dressed up as concern for correct enunciation.
But is a ban on such gibes the answer, in France or elsewhere? The case for one is that it would send a powerful signal: there is no rational reason to withhold a job or a loan because of an applicant’s accent. But a specific ban on accent discrimination may not be necessary. Donald Dowling, a lawyer at Littler Mendelson in New York, points out that, in many countries, accent mockery is already used as evidence of other forms of illegal discrimination, such as the racial kind. If you deride a Frenchman for an accent suggesting African origins, you are already breaking the law. In theory that law could be extended to cover (say) Breton origins without specifically adding “accent” to protected categories.
In the end, prejudice against accents betrays bad manners and small minds, and says more about the listener than about the put-upon speaker. But often it is itself a sign of poor education. As it happens, Mr Campbell’s swipe at Ms Patel’s “g-dropping” was badly aimed. There is no actual “g” sound (as in “go”) at the end of words ending in -ing; rather, there is a “velar nasal”, in which the mouth is closed off at the back and air comes from the nose. And the –in’ pronunciation he mocks (as in walkin’) was the “correct” one for centuries, remaining prestigious in the early 1900s.
If more of this were taught in British schools, snobbery would seem irrational. French children might be told that Parisian French was a latecomer, as prestige dialects in France go. Provençal, from France’s south, was the language of poetry when the speech of Paris’s Île-de-France region was a trivial local patois.
Speakers of prestigious accents are lucky that they do not face scorn for their speech. But it is just that—luck, not superior learning or care. A law may modify behaviour, but education is a better way to change attitudes.
This article appeared in the Books & arts section of the print edition under the headline "Eiffel power"
Author: | Post link: https://www.economist.com/books-and-arts/2020/12/12/accent-discrimination-betrays-a-small-mind
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