Socially Unacceptable Accents

I’ve mentioned this to lots of people over the years, but I’m still not sure about the answer, so I’ll post it here.

I’ve noticed that it’s socially acceptable to mimic a French accent. If you attempt a Parisian accent while commenting on the wine, none of your peers will assume that you’re anti-French, or acting in bad taste. They’ll just think you’re corny.

The same is true for a German accent. Or an Italian one.

But try the same exercise with a Chinese or Japanese accent and see how fast the freezing looks come. You can perform a Gallic shrug or frown, but you’d better not squint your eyes to approximate an epicanthic fold.

People doing European accents are A-OK. Those doing East-Asian ones are KKK.

Why is this?

I have a few theories, but only enough time to ask the question.

Update: A Wilson’s Quarterly issue distills an article by a philosopher asking similar questions.

6 Responses to Socially Unacceptable Accents

  1. JB August 24, 2006 at 10:32 pm #

    “Ebonics” got a lot of people in trouble too.

  2. JB August 24, 2006 at 10:39 pm #

    For that matter, sometimes you come off bad doing a “Jewish” accent.

    I think it has something to do with groups of people who have taken shit through history. In America this includes the Japanese (internment camps) and Chinese (ever seen Deadwood?) and blacks (duh).

    It’s only infrequently that you get dirty looks if you do a Jewish or “middle eastern” accent. Much less likely to get flack for that at a NASCAR rally. (Hey look at my generalization.) I think it’s because whether they are persecuted is under debate.

    If you do an Indian accent, it seems like it would depend on the context and intent.

    You can also do Scottish and Irish and just seem like a nincompoop, not a racist. If you do a Spanish accent it’s almost always to try to sound like a seductive bullfighter or something, but if you do a Mexican or otherwise Latino accent, you’re walking that dangerous line. And then a Carribbean (Jamaican) accent is almost always laid-back or having something to do with marijuana.

    Many times when people do a “southern” accent, they’re being critical. Like a backwoods redneck sort of southern. If they’re being stuck-up and snooty, they’ll affect English or New England (Charles on M.A.S.H.)


  3. Anonymous August 25, 2006 at 2:51 am #

    Yeah. What JB said. 😉

  4. weeklyrob August 25, 2006 at 8:52 am #

    That’s pretty much what I was thinking. Though I did purposely leave out people who speak English as a first language. I think maybe that’s a different thing.

    Taking it a little further, I wonder whether it’s sort of wrong to blame someone for doing an accent of one group over another. Because, really, the person who’ll imitate all accents is the color-blind one.

    If you’ll imitate the French but not the Chinese, then you’re making a distinction and keeping that distinction alive. Isn’t it better to embrace everyone as equals? I’m not saying to imitate them to make fun of them.

    And that’s a big thing. Let’s say you do a Chinese accent when talking about rice or noodles. Let’s face it, a lot of Chinese people eat a lot of rice or noodles. What’s wrong with that?

    But then, let’s say you imitate a Jewish accent to say you want your money. Oh no no no.

    Mind you, there’s no way that I’m gonna imitate the out-of-bounds accents. But wouldn’t the world be a better place if everyone did?

  5. weeklyrob August 25, 2006 at 10:01 am #

    And anyway, what the hell is a Jewish accent?

    There just aren’t that many people in the world with Yiddish as their first language, so I’m guessing that what most people think of as a Jewish accent is something else.

  6. JB August 25, 2006 at 11:38 am #

    It’s the “pick on everybody” method that a few comedians (like Carlos Mencia) are using today. Black, White, Hispanic, they seem to be free to say anything because they target as many groups as possible– including their own. But you don’t hear Mencia using the “N” word, or basically any epithet (other than “honky” or “cracker” :-/ ), so even there there’s a fine line.

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