The Talking Cure

Adventures in Accent Reduction

Bidialectism, the selective switching of accents on and off, is something Yale grad student Will Tims unconsciously lapsed into when he visited his parents in the Mississippi Delta last month. "I saw my old piano teacher and she said I sounded exactly the same," says Tims. "Then a friend in Manhattan got a message from me and said he couldn't believe how thick my accent had gotten down there."

Although Tims confesses he "almost always filters" his articulations, he considers his accent a point of pride and says he would never quash it on purpose.

illustration by Andrew Skwish

It's dubious that Tims would pass muster with G.B. Tennyson, professor emeritus of English at UCLA, who has proposed that in the interest of "language decorum," immigrants be required to read poetry aloud to native speakers as part of their citizenship tests.

Tennyson also scolded Latino broadcasters for slipping into "disturbingly dissonant" Spanish when pronouncing their own names on air. "This they do with frightening gusto, as if they were matadors taunting the bull," he wrote in a 1999 California Political Review.

Back at Sam Chwat's office, we are recovering the th in that, a mouth exercise more appropriate to a bordello. "Stick your tongue out, sit it against the surface of your top front teeth, touch your tongue to your teeth," Chwat instructs. "It's th, not d. Lose the economy with the th."

I contort my tongue, dash it against my teeth, and sputter out a th. "Hat, back, happy," Chwat says. "Hat, back, happy," I parrot. We settle in. I need a glass of water.

Check out the other stories in the Winter 2001 Voice Education Supplement.

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