The moment you realize you have accent privilege

19 min readJul 24, 2020


Patrick Cox and Kavita Pillay a long time ago

This is a transcript of a Subtitle podcast episode

Jane Setter: It was my dad mostly. He was very much aware that the way that you spoke mattered in how other people judged you.

Patrick Cox: This is a woman called Jane Setter.

Jane Setter: In his view, sounding very working class was not a good thing. And he’d had to change the way that he spoke.

Patrick Cox: Jane’s father grew up in London. His dad was cockney royalty. He sold fruit and veg at London’s Covent Garden Market.

Archive film: Covent Garden Market merchant: “10 bob a bundle.”

Covent Garden Market customer: “10 bob a bundle? Alright, give us 3 of those then.”

Patrick Cox: When Jane’s dad was young, he helped out at the market. But when he became a father, he didn’t want Jane, his daughter, to sound too rough around the edges.

Jane Setter: He wanted to make sure that the way that I spoke wasn’t defining me in a way that would limit my chances.

Patrick Cox: And so he voice-coached her.

Jane Setter: He always picked me up if I was using dialects, words, grammar, that sort of thing. If I was using non-standard-type grammar then he’d correct me.

Patrick Cox: He made sure she didn’t say things like “I don’t want no tea.” Or “It’s worser than you think.” When it came to the accent though, the hardest thing is changing those vowels.

Eliza Doolittle: “The rain in Spain stays mainly in the plain.”

Professor Higgins: “The rain in Spain stays mainly in the plain.”

Eliza Doolittle: “The rain in Spain stays mainly in the plain.”

Professor Higgins: “I think she’s got it. I think she’s got it!”

Patrick Cox: I thought long and hard before deciding to play this overused moment from My Fair Lady, a movie made more than 50 years ago, about an arrogant upper class professor who gives a working class woman, Eliza Doolittle, the gift of proper speech. But it seems such an archetype. It’s based on a play written in 1912 by George Bernard Shaw. And Shaw’s play, Pygmalion, lifted much of its plot from a novel called The Adventures of Peregrine Pickle, published in 1751. You can go back even further. Ancient Greeks and Romans loved to mock the accents of the less educated. This dynamic has been around for millennia. It seems permanent.

Professor Higgins: “The majesty and grandeur of the English language is the greatest possession we have.”

Patrick Cox: The professor, Henry Higgins, is overplaying his hand a bit. For one thing, there’s nothing pure or exceptional about the English language. It’s a hybrid tongue influenced by migrations and invasions from people who spoke other languages.

Professor Higgins: “And that’s what you’ve set yourself out to conquer, Eliza. And conquer it, you will.”

Patrick Cox: My Fair Lady was a big favorite in Jane Setter’s home…

Jane Setter: …largely because it had Audrey Hepburn in it. I mean, looking back at it now, it’s extremely misogynist in many ways. And so, you know, the fact that she was able to change her opportunities by changing the way that she spoke. That was kind of quite interesting, I think.

Patrick Cox: There’s only one time in your life when it doesn’t occur to you to think about how you speak and what that says about you.

Children: “The wheels on the bus go round and round, all day long.”

Patrick Cox: None of us, of course, chooses how we speak — or sing in those early years. We just repeat what we hear. What I heard was the genteel English spoken in that part of England that’s a short bus-ride away from Buckingham Palace. But then, school started. At elementary school. I did what all children do — I learned to speak how my peers spoke. Which wasn’t the Queen’s English.

Sound of kids playing in a playground.

Patrick Cox: That’s not exactly me and my school pals, but you get the idea. And like Jane Setter’s dad, my mum voice-coached me not to speak that way. After elementary school, my family moved away from London.

Tom Trevor: School — and I don’t know if it’s particularly British schools — are kind of terribly cruel places.

Patrick Cox: This is my friend Tom Trevor. Tom and I started hanging out together when we were teenagers. My family had moved to the southwest of England. The local accent there was different, softer. It had a country bumpkin reputation.

Tom Trevor: If we really thought about it, we’d remember people were horribly bullied for their accents, for not fitting in somehow.

Patrick Cox: He’s right. I mocked others and was mocked myself. Attacks came from up and down the class scale. You could sound too posh to some, too peasant-like to others. The school kids were lieutenants in policing social class, Tom says. But then something else happened. Some of us decided that we didn’t like the way we spoke. We were angst-ridden teenagers. Our middle-class voices just didn’t cut it. They didn’t sound authentic enough.

Patrick Cox: Did you have that thing that I think a lot of — especially — boys of our age did where we would try and downgrade our voice to sound a bit more sort of like working class, more — you know — like knowing, like we’d suffered?

Tom Trevor: Yeah, well I think we all did. In our late teens, early 20s. You know, this — it was the time of punk, wasn’t it, when we were sort of in bands and stuff together. So you wanted to talk a bit more London didn’t ya?

Patrick Cox: Yes, we were would-be punk rockers. And here — right now — should be the time when I play you how I sounded back then, singing in a band. Except that long ago, I destroyed the evidence. How very punk. We didn’t know it back then, but rock stars like Mick Jagger dropped down a class when they spoke in public. Politicians hadn’t yet mastered that trick but they soon did, inspired by private-school-educated Tony Blair, who on the campaign trail morphed into a right old man of the people. You could only sound authentic by being inauthentic. And in case a career in politics or music didn’t work out, you always had your nice acceptable voice available for job interviews.

Patrick Cox: How much do you think that you or me have benefitted from the way we sound?

Tom Trevor: Oh! Obviously you have, Paddy, because you’re working in the States.

Patrick Cox: I’m not going to translate British humor here except to say that’s a double-edged compliment. But yes, I am working in the United States — have been for more than two decades. There were growing pains though.

Patrick Cox: When I came to this country, I tried to fit in, so I sort of forced certain Americanisms on myself.

Colleen Cotter: Like what?

Patrick Cox: This is Colleen Cotter I’m talking with. She’s a linguistics professor. And the fun thing is she’s an American who lives in Britain talking with me, a Brit in America.

Patrick Cox: Well, the very first one, I was working in a restaurant. I was a waiter, and I was told the first thing I had to do was go up and ask people if they would like some water. There would be blank stares, so…(pronounced with an American accent) “water.”That was my first American word, “water.” I mean as soon as I said “would you like some water?” you know, it always worked.

Colleen Cotter: My — my first um — British-accented word was tomato. I’d go in and ask for a sandwich at the bakery with some tomatoes. And they’d be, “what what???” It felt so awkward for me to say “tomato”, like I was really, like — not myself.

Patrick Cox: Hear that? I was really not myself? I can relate to that. We are what we speak, right? Or how we speak.

Colleen Cotter: But it worked. It was so easy.

Patrick Cox: There’s that moment where you come to terms with the fact that you’re not actually changing your own identity by just simply adjusting how you say a certain word.

Colleen Cotter: Yes, I think that’s a really really good point. I mean, do you find — I mean, whenever I go back into the US, almost every other time I go in, the immigration person who’s checking my passport will say “Well you still have our accent.”

Patrick Cox: That hasn’t happened to me coming into the U.S. I dunno — maybe I could prove my assimilation by offering the officer some “water.” I moved on from waiting tables and got into radio journalism. In the early years, I didn’t sound great.

Patrick Cox: “The Anchorage Police Department spends a lot of time these days trying to prevent crime…”

Patrick Cox: Yuck! Make it go away! Once I acquired the ability to use my voice on the radio, it became an asset. I don’t think I always realized it, but people were curious. Why does this person who’s from a place where they have royalty and lords and ladies and manor houses — why does he want to know about neighborhood watch programs or redistricting?

Patrick Cox: People who I have interviewed who have been somewhat — especially early on in my journalistic career, you know somewhat — intimidated, you know, governors and statewide officials — have told me afterwards that they were just a bit in awe of my accent, so the — the sort of — the intimidation went both ways. Which I just thought was utterly ridiculous. And other people who have told me oh yeah whatever you say on the radio I believe it.

Colleen Cotter: Yeah, that is a lot of power, and I mean that’s just — those are really good examples of how, you know, we in our speech communities ascribe that power to people based on their accent or how they sound. People automatically ascribe extra intelligence to you because of your British accent.

Patrick Cox: I’m getting a free ride. This is almost the definition of privilege.

Patrick Cox: I’m struck really for the first time, I’ve never thought about it before. The fact that I went into radio and podcasting, I went into a career where I used my voice. Uh, you know, It was wholly unconscious but nonetheless um, you know, telling, I think.

Colleen Cotter: Yeah.

Patrick Cox: I know I didn’t leverage my accent by design. But still, it happened. The accent was available to me, and I made the most of it. I talked about all of this with Jane Setter too. You know, the woman who loved My Fair Lady when she was a kid. When Jane adjusted her speech under the tutelage of her father, it worked. She sounded less like many of her peers. But it came at a cost.

Jane Setter: The children at the school that I was at, not all of them but a minority group, perceived that I was posh. And didn’t like that.

Patrick Cox: The professor in My Fair Lady, Henry Higgins — he’s a professor of phonetics, the study of how we make and perceive speech. Many years after Jane first saw the movie, she herself became a professor of phonetics. And even today in academia, she comes across Henry Higgins-type attitudes. Case in point. A colleague of hers — a professor — whose regional Birmingham accent didn’t go down well with students.

Jane Setter: They said they found it difficult to take this person seriously, and I just thought that was extraordinary. Why would you do that? This person has a PhD and a strong research profile and they are a lecturer at this university. So why would you not believe them or think they were as good an authority as someone who spoke a different way?

Patrick Cox: Why indeed. But we carry these judgments, to a greater or lesser extent. We place undeserved value on some people’s speech and we devalue others. Even Jane says she does.

We do have accent bias. I mean, unconsciously we have accent bias. We hear people speak and we immediately make assumptions about them. I find myself doing this even though it’s something that I’ve written about.

So if Jane — with her background and her training — if even she slips up, it makes you wonder just how deep-rooted speech bias is. We’re all just one vowel pronunciation — one grammar choice — away from rejection. Or in my case, adoration. After the break, another valued accent: midwestern American English. Just how neutral, how all-American can it be?

Kavita Pillay: I’m a woman. I’m brown. And at least here in America, I have a foreign sounding name. Because even if you turn ‘Kavita Pillay’ into ‘Kuhveeduh Pullay’, no one is fooled. I was born and raised in the US, but I know that I may receive lesser treatment in certain situations because of my face and my name. I know it because I’ve experienced it. So when I have to make a phone call to a stranger, say customer service, or a faceless government bureaucracy, I reflexively crank up my enunciation, and I speak like this. It’s a defense mechanism, and I make sure to do it before I say my name. But it helps that I have THE accent that most Americans aspire to!

Parody video song: “Fun times in Cleveland again! Still Clevelaaand! Come on down to Cleveland…”

Kavita Pillay: This is from a series of popular parody videos about my hometown.

Parody video song: “Our economy’s based on Lebron James. Buy a house for the price of a VCR. Our main export is crippling depression…

Kavita Pillay: …and Lebron James? He isn’t even there anymore! It could be worse though…

Parody video song: “…It could be worse though, at least we’re not Detroit…We’re not Detroit!”

Kavita Pillay: If you know anything about Cleveland, you know that it’s been the butt of jokes for decades. But for those of us who are from there, we have one point of linguistic pride: our accent was considered to be THE “General American” accent. Or so we were told. I even remember in junior high that a teacher told us that our accent was so desirable that newscasters from across the land came to northeast Ohio to study how we spoke, so that they could sound like us. And I wondered if anyone I grew up with recalled this story…

Audra Costello: I don’t remember the part about the news anchors like training here.

Kavita Pillay: This is Audra Costello. Audra and I have known each other since second grade. We grew up 10 miles west of Cleveland, in Rocky River, Ohio. After high school, Audra went to The College of Wooster, about an hour south of the city.

Audra Costello: But I do remember in college someone saying something to the effect of like, well yeah, the people on TV sound like we do. Like, they don’t sound like they’re from anywhere else. And thinking like, well, yeah, that makes sense. Like, I don’t have an accent. That totally makes sense.

Kavita Pillay: Except she does. We all do! I’m speaking to you right now with an accent! That’s because every single person has an accent. Even those of us from Cleveland. Audra is now a high school English teacher. She and her family live in Rocky River, around the corner from her childhood home. I think of Audra as the archivist of our childhood — she remembers things so well. And I figured that she’d remember some version of this story about the Cleveland accent. But I also knew that Audra wouldn’t just accept what she was told; of my childhood friends, she would find holes in this story.

Audra Costello: The older I got, the more I think we did have an accent. I do think that ‘A’ is like exaggerated a lot in this area? I think that like “back” becomes like byaaack, like, I don’t know, there is sort of this like -nyeaaaa. I also just sort of think that was like a really egocentric thing to be like my world is the world. Like, my answer is like, the right answer. The way I talk is like, the way. Right?

Kavita Pillay: These are Audra’s perceptions about language. And perceptions about language? That’s the work of a certain kind of linguist. They’re called perceptual dialectologists.

Dennis Preston: I think I would have rather called it folk dialectology.

Kavita Pillay: Dennis Preston is a perceptual dialectologist at Oklahoma State University. He’s basically the founder of this field. And what Dennis is really interested in is: what do non-linguists say about language? Like, how they perceive it?

Dennis Preston: What do you hear? Where do you think it’s from? Do you think it’s a man or a woman? Do you think it’s a black person or a white person? All of that is perceptual dialectology.

Kavita Pillay: And this idea that Audra and I and other Clevelanders have ingested, that we Clevelanders have the best accent in America, and that newscasters wanted to speak like us? That’s all perceptual dialectology. But we perceived it to be true because of a Cleveland linguist named John Kenyon.

Dennis Preston: Some day you should walk up and down the streets of Cleveland and ask if any people — who ever heard of John Kenyon. I bet you won’t find many.

Kenyon was a 20th century linguist from Northeast Ohio, the Cleveland area, and he wasn’t the first to promote the myth that the Midwest was the home of “accent-free” American English. But he gave the northeast Ohio accent a name: General American. In other words, John Kenyon decided that HIS accent was THE General American accent. In the 1920s and 40s, Kenyon wrote pronunciation guides based on how Clevelanders of that time spoke. Then, starting in the 40s, NBC picked up Kenyon’s pronunciation guides and promoted them among their newscasters!

Newscaster: “We’re in NBC’s world communication center, in the heart of Radio City, New York. We are in touch with the world. We’ll tell you what’s happening today…”

Dennis Preston: Yes. There’s no doubt that that’s what they used. And it was the best read and best known guide to American pronunciation. And since he said explicitly that this was a really good way to talk, then why wouldn’t NBC do this?

Kavita Pillay: John Kenyon wrote a myth, and people with power at NBC turned it into reality! But these days, most linguists like Dennis Preston take issue with the idea that the accent in which I’m speaking to you is the General American accent.

Dennis Preston: First of all, by “General American,” do you mean what most of the people say or the largest region? I mean, what’s it based on? It appears to be based on geography. Why don’t we base it on numbers and say, oh, more people say things in American English this way? Well, that would be a good candidate for General American. But since you can’t really find a huge number of people who all agree on how to talk and pronunciation and vocabulary, grammar or anything else, then the idea is just a bogus idea.

Kavita Pillay: Clevelanders, Dennis is here to pop our accent superiority bubble. We do not have the General American accent, because there’s no such thing. In fact, there are so many major and minute variations in how we Americans speak — the words we use, how we use them, how we pronounce them.

Dennis Preston: Every linguistic level you can think of varies in America, and is variable, by the way.

Kavita Pillay: And even if you think you speak General American, a dialectologist like Dennis could listen to you for a while, take some notes, and probably pinpoint the parts of the country where you’ve spent the most time.

Dennis Preston: My favorite story is about a linguist who I knew years and years ago. And one day he said to me, ah Preston, you’re one of those smart dialectologists. I bet you can’t tell me where I’m from. Within a few minutes I told him that he was from not northeastern but northwestern Ohio and not right up in Toledo, but a little south of it. And he said, how could you know that? I’m from Findlay! But since he was from Ohio, he considered himself to be a general American speaker.

Kavita Pillay: But there are bigger problems with General American.

Dennis Preston: So, the potential for its being racist, regionalist, ageist and so forth, almost any kind of nasty “-ist” you want to think of can sort of jump on the bandwagon of General American and point the finger.

Kavita Pillay: And the General American myth can get tied up with another story that we Americans like to tell ourselves…

Dennis Preston: The myth of the great promise. If you only learn to talk and write good, then you’ll get a better job and you’ll move right up the social and educational ladder. And no such promise could be made, especially not within context where racism and sexism and other forms of exclusion of people could be made.

Romona Robinson: “I had a great day today, I actually sat down with the President of the United States, Barack Obama, as you know, and we talked about a number of issues plaguing northeast Ohio…”

Kavita Pillay: If you’ve spent much time in Cleveland, you know that this is the voice of Romona Robinson. When she arrived in Cleveland in 1988, it seemed to me like central casting had sent us THE quintessential TV anchor: statuesque, a perfect smile, never a hair out of place. And that voice…

Romona Robinson: “It’s always been said that the people in the Midwest speak correctly because if you watch a newscast in New York, you might hear a slight word or two that you can tell they’re from New York. But mostly it’s that Midwestern accent.”

Kavita Pillay: Romona herself grew up in the Midwest, in Missouri, just like this guy:

Walter Cronkite: “Good evening from our CBS newsroom in New York, on this, the first broadcast of network television’s first daily half hour news program.”

Kavita Pillay: Walter Cronkite was Romona’s childhood idol. She dreamed of becoming a news anchor, just like him. But when she got to college, she was told something had to change.

Romona Robinson: We would say when I was growing up, “guh, open that dough” instead of “girl, open the door”. And words like pork chops was “pohk chops” and forty dollars was “fouty dollars”. And so that’s how I spoke when I went to college. And so it was really difficult to change that.

Kavita Pillay: Romona Robinson is Black. And a Black woman in the 80s who aspired to be a TV reporter had to speak a certain way.

Romona Robinson: When I got to college, in class, I had this hard-nosed professor, Dr. R.C. Wyatt. He was always on me about my language.

Kavita Pillay: In her book, a Dirt Road to Somewhere, Romona describes this professor as her own Henry Higgins.

Romona Robinson: And my professor told me, I want you to go home every day, get the newspaper, stand in front of the mirror. And I want you to read from that paper, and I want you to focus and concentrate on pronouncing words correctly.

Kavita Pillay: Remember what dialectologist Dennis Preston said, about the myth of the great promise? That if you learn to write and speak a certain way, you’ll move up the ladder? Ramona’s lesson in this was more like Eliza Doolittle’s. For me, it was a more subtle lesson. Take my favorite teacher in high school…

Kavita Pillay: “She probably meant well. It was my French teacher. She was a big supporter of me. But she said, I sometimes detect just a slight Indian accent in how you speak. Because my parents…”

Romona Robinson: “Indian?”

Kavita Pillay: “Yeah. My parents are from India. And I remember thinking — that sounded very negative to me. I didn’t have any positive Indian role models, you know, at that time in media… and I very consciously wanted to sound Midwestern.”

Kavita Pillay: By which I mean, I wanted to sound white.

Kavita Pillay: “It’s interesting, you know, how it can be conscious and unconscious.”

Romona Robinson: “Oh, don’t we know it?”

Kavita Pillay: In different ways, Romona and I are both very aware of how we speak and what it tells you about us. It also tells you about the accent bias in our environments, and in ourselves. And for better or worse, both of us sound pretty white. Because for Romona, who grew up dirt poor and was determined to make it in TV news, that was the only way to make it as an anchor.

Romona Robinson: I don’t think there are any white anchors who ever had to deal with, could you sound a little more black for us? Could you, you know…

Kavita Pillay: But it’s not like changing how she spoke protected her from the agony of racism. In her early jobs, she was told to sound less “urban”. By the way, Romona grew up as a Missouri farm girl; by the time she was seven, she knew multiple ways to kill a chicken by hand. As a reporter in South Carolina, she was sent on assignments that were designed to make her quit, like being asked to get an interview with the Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan at a Klan rally in Charleston. Which she did do, and she didn’t quit. And when she arrived in Cleveland, to become our first black female nightly news anchor, the Klan in nearby Akron, Ohio started writing her letters.

Romona Robinson: I’ll never forget the first letter I received. It was Cleveland has beautiful white anchors. We don’t need “N anchors” like you.

Kavita Pillay: “N anchors”. You know the word.

Romona Robinson: It got worse. Some of the other letters were pictures of monkeys and baboons, pictures they had cut out and pasted on the paper. It was so hard because I was like, I’ve gone to school, I’ve done the work, I’ve earned this job. How come I just can’t be happy like all the other anchors in town? Why do I have to endure this?

Kavita Pillay: But she did endure it. Over the course of thirty years, Romona became Cleveland’s top rated news anchor, even in a town where 93% of her viewership was white. Along the way, she’s earned eight Emmys. Romona’s great dream came true. She’s a household name in Cleveland.

Romona Robinson: “I’m Romona Robinson and I will be your moderator for what I hope to be an insightful, informative, and long overdue conversation for our city and our region.”

It makes me wonder though, is there a young version of Romona Robinson out there right now? Might she be able to achieve what Romona did without having to change how she speaks? Listening to Romona and how hard she’s worked to sound the way she does, I don’t know that it has lessened my tendency to over enunciate on phone calls. But it does make me feel less alone. Maybe one day, I’ll even pick up the phone to call a stranger without reflexively thinking that I should over pronounce things like this. Maybe one day I’ll say right off, this is Kavita Pillay.

This episode of Subtitle was reported by Patrick Cox and Kavita Pillay. The podcast version of the story is available here and on Apple podcasts.

Subtitle’s sound designer is Tina Tobey. We had editing help from Julia Barton.

Thanks to: Grant Barrett, Jeremy Helton, Rod Tyler, and our partners at the Linguistic Society of America.

Subtitle is funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities.




A podcast about languages and the people who speak them. Co-hosted by @patricox and @kbpillay. Twitter: @lingopod