Watch your tone!

Watch your tone!

Welcome. Bienvenido. Salut. Khush Amdeed. Huānyíng. While these phrases extend a warm invitation, the various tonal changes in each language pressure the brain to perceive them differently. Thus, discrepancies in accents and tone switches often give rise to stereotypes, which can have far-reaching effects on both a regional and global scale. 

Roman emperor Charles V declared, “I speak Spanish to God, Italian to women, French to men and German to my horse.” Although not as blunt, the conception of “romantic” versus “ugly” languages continue to prevail. Sociolinguistic studies have observed that the allure of a language is determined by how positively one views a community. In its most simple form, this phenomenon is evident in history and international affairs, where language perception is altered by former expectations. For example, when listening to German, one may often misconstrue syllables as harsh or commanding. 

“Particularly, cultures that have languages that don’t use a lot of tones tend to find tonal languages almost like gibberish because they’re missing so much,” English teacher David Clarke said. “‘People who speak in Cantonese, they always sound like they’re arguing,’ is what the kids will say. It has to do with both stereotypes about the culture being imposed upon the language and the language itself.”

Language value is often linked to the prestige of the speaker — the increasing popularity of Chinese as a global language is linked to the country’s major economic growth; conversely, languages spoken by a less economically powerful group may not be seen in the same positive light. 

Linguistic stereotypes are even pertinent in lighthearted children’s media. In “The Lion King,” king Mufasa has an American accent while Scar, the villain, dons a British one. Furthermore, Dr. Doofenshmirtz, nemesis of Perry the Platypus in “Phineas and Ferb,” has a German accent and often references the culture. The use of German, Eastern European and Russian accents for animated villains in Western movies is likely a reflection of the U.S.’s hostility toward these countries during World War II and the Cold War. In one study done by sociolinguist Calvin Gidney, which analyzed random samples of television shows, a majority of heroic characters were American-sounding. By symbolizing defeat of a foreign threat by an American hero merely through accents, American media places the U.S. on a pedestal for younger audiences as they are developing views of the world.

“As long as the media fed to our children perpetuates these harmful stereotypes, the next generation will continue to contribute to negative ideas surrounding specific groups,” Intersections club president Vineeta Muvvala said. “It’s up to us to change the narrative and promote a more inclusive future, starting with television.”

The language processing center of the brain attempts to form patterns out of foreign stimuli. When responding to words or sounds that cannot be interpreted, it resorts to a more basic understanding based on tone. As such, guttural and more consonant-based languages are taken to be brash or harmful, while more harmonic and vowel-heavy languages are perceived as more sophisticated or advanced. Languages like Mandarin consist of many tonal changes, whereas those such as French are relatively smooth-sounding. While this doesn’t impact native speakers, these shifts in tone or lack thereof influence how foreigners view various cultures. Arabic, one of the most frequently misunderstood languages and difficult to learn, is spoken throughout the Middle East. The center of much political conflict and controversy, confusion surrounding Middle Eastern politics can be compounded by views of the languages spoken there. 

“As a mixed person, people are often surprised that I speak Spanish,” junior Peter Agguire said. “Especially with my parents, I do feel my family is treated somewhat differently when we’re speaking our native language instead of English in public.”

Even within the U.S, the wide variety of ways to speak English create preconceived notions about certain geographical areas. Discrepancies between the timing and rhythms of southern English dialects in comparison to northern speech styles have contributed toward beliefs about the competency of residents in these regions. Southern “drawl” or “twang” is characterized by slower syllables and exaggeration, which can become associated with struggling to properly comprehend English, form words or think quickly.

Harsh opinions concerning the culture and language of certain groups typically bounce off each other. The South’s historical resistance to change and focus on traditional values has also contributed to slow-paced ideas of the South. In another example, stereotypes placed on African American Vernacular English judge the language for its colloquial tone and increased number of contractions or slang. The extent to which linguistic stereotypes are based on culture, or that cultural stereotypes are linked to language, remain hazy. Of 201 Lynbrook students polled, 87.5% agreed that stereotypes could be formed based on their language’s tone and resulting accent.

“People tend to think of those speaking Southern dialect as being ignorant because they take longer to say things,” Clarke said. “But that’s also an effect of the juxtaposition between that accent versus what you might call a common, stereotypical, newscaster English.”

As the world becomes increasingly global due to connections bolstered by social media and the Internet, language will undoubtedly adapt to change. Already, phrases from across the world have begun to insert themselves into American English. Yet, stereotypes concerning specific vernacular and accents continue to divide groups of people, and whether they will continue to persist remains unknown.