Monday, June 28, 2021

Accents and pronunciation

I meant to write a post a couple of weeks ago on this story about accent bias. It reports that Essex accents were judged 'less intelligent' than others in a survey - though it seems the study only looked at London and home counties accents and didn't include other accents, such as Brummie or various northern accents.

Accent bias can not only unfairly affect an individual's job prospects, but even democratic politics.

I didn't get round to a post at the time, largely because much of my time has been spent on marking lately, but I was reminded of that study by this column on mispronunciation. The author is professor of phonetics and has lots of interesting things to say about why certain mistakes come about (e.g. 'expresso' instead of 'espresso').

However, the last section of the column moves from how language changes to making normative claims about prejudice and discrimination. "Correcting pronunciation can actually be an act of linguistic prejudice." I suppose it could be, but it isn't clear that it has to be or even that this is the normal case. Though she acknowledges that correcting a language-learner may be different, it seems that how and why someone corrects someone else makes a big difference here.

She ends by remarking on 'accent prejudice' which is indeed alive and well, as demonstrated by the BBC story I mentioned earlier, but it's something of a non-sequitor. There's a difference between who someone pronounces a word differently, because of their accent (which they will share with a wider group), and idiosyncratic mispronunciations. You might think that there's something objectionably elitist about correcting even the latter, but that doesn't follow from the fact that it's wrong to correct the former. 

(For the record, I was born and raised in Essex, but I'm not sure I really have an Essex accent any more. On the other hand, I'm regularly unsure how to pronounce words that I'm more used to seeing in print.)

Wednesday, June 23, 2021

Regulating women's behaviour

 The World Health Organisation (WHO) has recently published a first draft 'global action plan' on alcohol. (The preceding link is to something like an online press release; the actual draft plan can currently be found here.)

One thing that has caused particular controversy - such as this report - is the following sentence from p. 17 (emphasis added):

"Appropriate attention should be given to prevention of the initiation of drinking among children and adolescents, prevention of drinking among pregnant women and women of childbearing age, and protection of people from pressures to drink, especially in societies with high levels of alcohol consumption where heavy drinkers are encouraged to drink even more."

Now, it isn't clear (at least on a brief look) exactly what this is supposed to mean. It certainly doesn't seem to propose anything like banning women of childbearing age from consuming alcohol. But, all the same, this is a sweeping statement, suggesting that most women shouldn't consume alcohol, even if they haven't had sex and therefore are not pregnant.

The Metro coverage quotes Matt Lambert (a remark apparently from the Telegraph, but behind a paywall) describing this as "being sexist and paternalistic, and potentially restricting the freedoms of most women".

I wouldn't agree that it's paternalistic, since paternalism usually refers (roughly) to preventing an agent from harming herself. In this case, the guideline isn't to protect the women themselves, but their children. That isn't really paternalism, even if it is unjustified.