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Putting the accent on English

A recent article in the New York Times describes a somewhat controversial (and no longer current) program that was run in public schools in the state of Arizona for nearly a decade – sending monitors to judge whether English teachers had an accent. If a teacher was thought to have too strong an accent, he or she was encouraged to attend remedial classes to soften it.

It is a bit of a tricky thing to assign value, either negatively or positively, to an accented form of a language, especially when, as is the case with English, there are so many varieties of it. There are an enormous number of varieties of English —Ebonics or Strine to give just two examples — and with varieties come different pronunciations.

For instance, the Times makes mention of three words that a particular teacher pronounces with an accent – allegiance, republic, and individual. All three of these words have different pronunciations depending on whether you look them up in the World English or the US English side of Oxford Dictionaries Online. And that is before you take into consideration the varying accents within US English, or British English, not to mention the countless other accents of speakers of English throughout the world (Canadian English, South African English, and Indian English, to name but a few).

No matter whether any other states decide to pick up where Arizona left off and begin testing for accents, it seems unlikely that we will be rid of hearing about problems with pronunciation any time soon, at least in the United States. After all, we still seem to be preoccupied (some might even say overwrought) about the correct way to say the word nuclear – at least four out of our past eleven presidents have pronounced it in a non-standard fashion (Eisenhower, Carter, Clinton, and Bush (fils)). We have plenty of people who will continue to say this word in an ‘unapproved fashion’, and plenty more who will be happy to condemn them for it.