Let me get this out of the way right now: I once lived in fear of Anglophilia. This fear has had serious consequences, such as, for example, preventing me from reading the Harry Potter books, and, until a few years ago, watching Buffy (which I knew contained prominent British characters played by American actors, inspiring what I feared would be an awkwardly Anglophilic fanbase). My parents are British, you see, but I have lived my entire life in the United States, and therefore have a solidly USAmerican accent, Central Pennsylvanian to be specific. Starting in early childhood, I experienced the social world of strangers as one utterly fascinated by my parents’ accents, and one saddened by my lack of the same. And so, early on, I developed my Linguistics 101 talking points about the connections between accent, affect, perceived credibility, and social class. Aside from the Linguistics 101 situation, I’ve found that these talking points become relevant in two other situations in which I commonly find myself: when I am meeting new colleagues, for example, a new cohort of graduate students in my program, or when an accent meme goes around among a newly-coalescing group of internet friends. The former situation is not relevant here, but I think the latter one is, if only because it offers a way in to a discussion of internet intimacy, and how it connects to the language politics of fandom. I’ve been through three or four “rounds” of accent memes with various online social circles, and some interesting trends have emerged. Here, I’m talking about accent memes that specifically look for likely points of difference (say, the pronunciation of Mary/marry/merry) among English speakers, rather than, say, the dynamics of a wave of podficcing, which are less predictable depending on the variety of fans involved. Within accent memes proper, I’ve noticed that people seem to produce an attitude toward language that values authenticity and rare speech patterns in ways that would stretch the boundaries of etiquette in a different context. To be clear, I am as guilty as anyone else of this exoticizing impulse, particularly when it’s combined with the inevitable excitement of connecting a person’s textual presence with a new sensory element of their presence, their voice. But it does strike me as somehow strange that it’s so much more common to hear “oh, that accent is so cool” than it would be (I hope) to say “oh, that person’s face/name is so cool.” Certainly, when people post pictures of themselves, there’s an expected chorus of “you’re so cute!” but it feels somehow different. That “somehow” is what drew me to the study of linguistics in college. For a few key historical reasons, English speakers in the U.S. are incredibly confused about what one can and cannot say about language. The most important of these, I think, is the institutional equation of Standard Written/White English with “correct grammar,” and its inherent enforcement of the prescriptive approach to language patterns. Armed with an understanding of SWE versus the deviant, many English speakers in the U.S. create a strict division between the language of education and professional advancement on the one side, and the language of emotion, family, and home on the other. (Obviously I’m generalizing to a ridiculous degree here.) Within internet culture, this distinction can become even more deeply entrenched. Hardly the revitalization of communitarian culture some have proclaimed the internet to be, some spheres of internet culture create their hierarchies entirely based on language use, taking prescriptive mandates more seriously than many English teachers do. But this attention to detail is not without its own insights for social justice vis a vis judgements of linguistic competence. For example, to accompany the exoticization I’ve seen in accent memes, there’s a counter-phenomenon of the Brit-pick. Here the accuracy of non-British fic authors’ representations of British characters’ voices is put to the test by native speakers of particular varieties of British English. I find Brit-picking (and its cousins, such as Yank-wank, which term I’ll have to admit I’ve never seen used) fascinating, especially as it relates to accent meme authenticity. I assume that in the context of concrit, it’s actually quite helpful, but when, as an outside reader, I encounter a comment that says “no British person would say x,” I find it strange. I’m sure it’s true sometimes, but I can’t think of many statements I’d be confident in saying that no native speaker of American English could ever organically utter. I mean, I know I’ve come up with some pretty odd, non-idiomatic sentences while composing this very piece, but I don’t think any of them disqualifies me from my national identity. These issues are all separate, of course, and I’d like to do a post at some point on my perhaps naive confusion as to why so many actors are asked to play characters with dramatically different accents than their own. (Dollhouse offers something of an in-story explanation of this, but that’s a topic for another day.) I’d also like to think more about the space podfic creates for a discussion of the connection between the aesthetic and narrative effects of accents and accent mimicry, and how conversations surrounding podfic differ from the off-the-cuff accent meme responses. But for today, I hope I’ve raised some questions worth thinking further about, related to language and online fandom.
[META] Accent Memes, Brit-picking, and Other Perpetually Fascinating Phenomena of Internet Linguistics