"Be very careful when talking to a person about their accent," my wife Caron said to me with a raised eyebrow. "Someone at work said they talked to a linguist who explained how offensive that is. They said accents don't exist anymore?"
Caron works in diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI). And even though her comment didn't stem from one of her official trainings, the idea that this notion could be spreading bothered me.
"Accents don't exist? Have they ever traveled outside of the internet?" I chuckled back. "I'm from Baltimore! Tew, dew, and yew is all I know!"
We laughed, and she rolled her eyes at my response. "Times are changing."
I didn't know where this idea originated or how widespread it is, but it stuck with me. So I reached out to Dr. Ronnie Collins, Sr., a Coppin State University professor who has studied sociolinguistics for more than 30 years, for some scholarly insights on accent erasure.
"That follows that same error we get from the color blindness domain. You know, [when people say] 'we don't see color.' When you know that we all see color, and it's not that we always act on it, but we see it," Collins told me. "We all have have dialects. Unfortunately, what happens with language is that we tend to place more value on certain dialects."
He went on to explain that even though language constantly evolves, different regions will continue to display their own collections of distinct vernaculars. And Collins is right — some accents are definitely treated as less desirable than others, in some cases because of the assumptions other people make about people based on how they pronounce certain words or the idioms they use. It's possible that a corrective idea like "everyone has an accent" — so they should be seen as value-neutral — could have been pushed even further to "accents don't exist."
"Society pushes the [idea of] 'can we all get along' and forget about those things that make us different," Collins said. "The famous sociologist Stuart Hall even identified 'understanding human difference' as the major the problem of the 21st century."
"Language is a key part of everyone's culture and identity, and it's important to not erase that."
But Caron was right; times are changing. Language changes with the times, and yes, many of these changes are needed and actually long overdue. For example, referring to people suffering from addiction as addicts rather than "junkies" humanizes a disease that has been over-policed for way too long. And calling newly released brothers and sisters returning citizens rather than "ex-cons" erases a nasty stigma and groups us all together as if we were one family, the way it should be.
"I believe we do have to bring language into conversations about DEI. In order to make our social domains, such as our workplaces and schools, a more inclusive place, we have to respect, value and incorporate linguistic diversity," Dr Christine Mallinson, a professor of language, literacy and culture at University of Maryland, Baltimore County, told me. "How we use language is a central part of who we are. Language is a key part of everyone's culture and identity, and it's important to not erase that — but rather to embrace the beauty of the different ways that we all use language every day."
Some well-meaning attempts at language change can fall flat. Once, I spoke at a youth jail as part of a seminar for troubled youth and an event organizer, attempting to make me comfortable, billed me as a "Former Crack Entrepreneur." I laughed on the inside — and maybe the outside, too (I don't have a good poker face). In a former life, I slanged rocks; I was a dope dealer, a corner hustler who chased money all day like many of the kids in the program did. And that person's effort to create a dressed-up, more PC job title for me and the kids I was trying to inspire — a kind of language change that I didn't ask for — probably made all of us adults seem more disconnected. Luckily, I was still able to tell my story and get some positive feedback from the kids in the crowd.
After the event, a few of us went off to have a drink. "Language like 'Former Crack Entrepreneur' might not be the best way to reach these kids," I told the organizer, whose face shaded into a bashful red.
"But the drug game is so intricate," the organizer explained over his un-sipped beer. "I don't want to minimize you to 'hustler' or 'crack seller.'"
"I hear you," I said. "But you could have called me 'author' or 'college professor,' and let me share my own story of what being in the streets is like."
He hid his face with both his hands before admitting that he had a lot of learning to do. We both agreed on the importance of meeting people where they are. And as goofy as Former Crack Entrepreneur sounds, I did understand what the organizer was trying to do. Because as much as society fails drug users, it has failed dealers from poverty even more.
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But are we now talking about erasing accents? This is where I must draw the line. It's almost like we are looking for reasons to alter the ways we think and live, without actually solving the problems that are right in front of us.
Over the years I've found myself defending my beloved accent again and again.
When I consider how I feel about my own accent, I remember a basketball game at an LA Fitness in Atlanta in 2006. Paul's 6-foot-7 frame glided clear toward the heavens, over everyone and everything in the gym, snatching the rebound and letting out a ferocious roar in process, only to be drowned out by his Nikes slapping the bleach-blonde floors. I broke toward half court as soon as the ball bounced off the rim because I'd played with Paul dozens of times and knew he could out-rebound anyone. Paul squinted his small narrow eyes and threw a hail Mary whole court pass to a soaring me. I snagged the ball out of the air like Randy Moss and rocked it like a baby between two defenders in one motion, as I took two steps to the basket and hit the hard lay-up, despite one guy slapping my face and bigger guy yanking my shoulder. I'm sure the foul could be heard round the globe.
"And 1!" yelled me and Paul and a group of guys on the sideline concurrently.
"Nah, you traveled, B!" shouted the stocky defender I scored the basket on. "Check up top, son, that's on God!"
"F**k is yew dumb? I took tew steps that split yew and him," I shot back. "F**k yew mean? That's a bucket."
"Yew, tew?" the stocky defender repeated. "I know that ugly ass Baltimore accent from anywhere!"
From there the two us jokingly made fun of each other's accents — his extra-New York vernacular, ending every sentence with B or son, and mine Baltimore to the core. Others in the gym chimed in, teasing both of us. I didn't leave scarred, broken or defeated –– as matter a fact, I gained more pride in how I sound and where I come from. But I do understand that this is only my story and perspective, and that others may feel differently in the same situation.
"We have to be careful to not stereotype someone's accent or marginalize them for how they use language. For example, when a white colleague tells a colleague of color, 'you're so articulate' or 'you speak so well,' the remark suggests that they assumed the other person would be less articulate and are surprised to find out they aren't," Mallinson told me. "That is a linguistic microaggression, and it is a clear example of why understanding language and culture is in fact critically important to DEI work."
Over the years I've found myself defending my beloved accent again and again: during basketball games; as a student at John Hopkins University, when other Black students were code switching; against cops who'd pull me over just to bother me. But the funniest response came from women I'd meet in the nightclubs in Atlanta or Los Angeles who would say things like, "Oh, you have a heavy Baltimore accent. I don't date guys from there — y'all too crazy." Someone once tweeted that men from Baltimore sound like "dirty Australians," which did make me laugh. But time and time again, I've had to step up and defend our precious accent or dew what I had to dew.
Gawker even seeded Baltimore as #16 on its 2014 list of the ugliest accents in America:
"Anybody who has watched even one season (the good one) of The Wire has an ear for the beautiful Bawlmer accent. Unlike Boston's The Departed and Filelfia's Silver Linings Playbook, the accent work in The Wire has been lauded for its close likeness to how actual Baltimore residents speak—like warshing an Ole Bay stain out of your shirt in the baffroom during an Oh-ree-oles game. Still ugly, unfortunately, even when it's coming out of Idris Elba's pretty mouth."
But I didn't let the corny code-switchers or closed-minded ladies who generalized me and my city get me down, because we all shared a special time in American history, when social media was expanding and beginning to change the world. The argument between me and the stocky New York guy on the court in Atlanta happened during the explosion of MySpace. Shortly after, Facebook exploded and Twitter and Instagram followed. These social networking sites made the world smaller by highlighting similar interests of people all over the world while simultaneously becoming a hub for exposing us to the different cultures that make people from each and every end of the world special. Unique fashion in New York, original artwork straight out of the Midwest, cooking tutorials syruped over with beautiful Mississippi accents, underground comedians from LA working on their sets, Philly poets putting on weekly performances. All of it left us overwhelmed with beauty. All different kinds of people with different accents from all over the place that belonged to people who loved how they sounded — or were at least comfortable enough that they chose to amplify their voices consistently as soon as the internet gave them the opportunity to do so. I was one of those people, too.
That time of discovery feels far away. Now, culture is feeling more and more like operating system and app updates: constantly changing, evolving and elevating, but not always in the ways we actually ask for. I would like society to deal with racism, sexism and classism, but instead I get rhetoric on ignoring accents. Just as I would really like my phone to play videos without pausing, but instead I get an update that promises more emojis to play with and always — always — a better camera. I use the same three emojis over and over. I don't take selfies. The updates come anyway.
Of course language must adapt to be more inclusive. It's one way we show our culture is evolving to be more inclusive, too. But we can do that without erasing our linguistic differences. Making fun of how another person is different from the dominant group, or putting them on the spot and making them feel bad for speaking differently, is wrong. But people who are proud of their accents — no matter how different they may sound to others — deserve to have that honored as well.