Home > Random > Just how offensive are ‘comedy’ accents?

Just how offensive are ‘comedy’ accents?

Last Saturday night, me and Rebecca had a friend over for dinner, and after a few G&Ts (for me), the conversation turned to different accents and attitudes towards people from other places. Living in England (or America) meant that my accent stood out, even though I speak (for the most part) Standard Scottish English and didn’t really think that my accent was that marked, and I’ve had more than my fair share of ‘oh that’s a funny way of saying that! Can you say it again?’. This typically proceeds anything I say that contains a trilled /r/ or some other rhotic ‘quirk’ that Scottish English speakers have. For a long time, I thought it was just something that happened to people who had a different variety of English from the dominant variety in the place the speaker was living

It got really bad when I was living in America where one guy that I knew, no matter what I said to him, would always start talking in this ‘mock Scottish’ accent. I’m a pretty laid back guy most of the time, but it got to the point where I thought that this guy was just taking this piss and dressing it up as ‘banter’. Maybe me being Scottish (and he apparently had Scottish ancestry) meant that he felt it was ok to perform ‘mock Scottish’ right in front of me. After all, how racist can it be to imitate someone’s accent when he’s white and the person that’s doing the imitation is white as well?

Perhaps because I’m a white, male native English speaker somehow means I’m a ‘legitimate’ target for these kinds of mock performances? Would the same happen if I was black, or Asian, or Maori or otherwise non-white? How far does skin colour determine when it is and isn’t ok to perform ‘mock accents’ (and what other issues are important?)? Would this guy have done this if I was Russian or Polish or Spanish or French (as a disclaimer, I realise I’m conflating race with nationality here and I know how problematic that is…)? My feeling is that he wouldn’t have.

Anyway, what was really surprising was that only a few days ago, an article appeared on the BBC website about David Cameron’s attempt to do an Australian accent as part of a recent speech. The article questioned whether it was ever ok to do a comedy accent, and how far doing a comedy accent might be a form of covert racism (this is the basis of Jane Hill’s discussion of ‘mock Spanish‘, perhaps best seen in The Terminator where John Connor says ‘hasta la vista’). One of the commentators in the article, Sean Ruttledge, argued that ‘the lay person has to be careful what accents they do. Imitating certain accents gives the perception that someone is simply being racist’. But I think that racism is only part of the issue here (albeit a very significant issue). The other issue is that it’s simply to do with respect. Mocking someone’s accent and thus making them a target of humour and ridicule suggests that the person doing the accent feels like that person is a legitimate target for their humour. Given how closely we guard our accent or dialect, mocking it could be (and quite often is) viewed as an attack on who we are and where we’re from.

The question is, then, when people are not being racist or offensive, why do they do it?

A big part of it, I realised after my dinner conversation with Rebecca and my friend, is that it comes from a place of friendliness and affection. This was quite surprising to me because I had typically associated this kind of thing with ‘friendly piss-taking’ but not ‘I feel like I know you well enough to do this’. The other thing is that sometimes people like certain accents and enjoy listening to it, and imitation here is a form of flattery. This was certainly the case for Rebecca and again, I was quite surprised about that since I don’t think that the Scottish accent is anything to write home about.

Perhaps the biggest thing then is that it’s the relationships between the people engaged in these performances which determines how the performances should be read. Or maybe the safest thing for everyone is that no-one imitates any accents, then no-one can ever be offended by someone else trying to put an accent on. Or maybe I’m just over-thinking this…

The Social Linguist

  1. Aaron
    November 22, 2011 at 6:02 pm

    “Would this guy have done this if I was Russian or Polish or Spanish or French (as a disclaimer, I realise I’m conflating race with nationality here and I know how problematic that is…)? My feeling is that he wouldn’t have.”

    No, I’m pretty sure he would have. He was a nice guy, but he had his asshole moments, and that was definitely one thing he did a lot.

    I’ve noticed that here I’ve been working with a lot of non-native speakers and part of how we interact is to both adopt phrases and words from a variety of languages for ease of communication, as well as simply making fun of accents. Sometimes the taking the piss with accents gets a bit aggressive, but for the most part it done in jest. One curious thing I’ve found, especially if it’s two non-native speakers taking the piss about accents, is that it also has to do with trying to get everyone so that they speak in a way that’s understandable for everyone else. One Italian makes fun of an Argentinian about the way he pronounces Hs, and he just smiles and accentuates it even more. Or maybe we’re just a bunch of stressed assholes who need to take it out on each other.

  2. November 24, 2011 at 3:14 pm

    Hey Aaron. Yeah, I was always really unsure about whether he would or not, but since you knew him better than I did, I’ll take your word for it 🙂

    I think that finding the dividing line between jest and outright piss-take can be a fine one, and sometimes it’s just not clear what someone’s intentions are (or their intentions are misinterpreted).

    When’s your viva btw?

  3. Aaron
    November 30, 2011 at 1:00 pm

    I suppose with everything, intention is quite important. It’s also definitely a problem that we cannot know the minds of those around us, no matter how well we think we know them.

    As for my viva, it’s tomorrow at 9am. Joy! I just reread my thesis, made a couple of corrections to the formatting and grammar. It’s not quite as much of a mess as I thought when I submitted it three weeks ago; it’s quite reassuring. I guess I’ll find out how my examiners feel about it tomorrow though. I’m still keen on coming up for a visit, I’ll send you an email about it later.

  4. November 30, 2011 at 1:17 pm

    Ah jeez, so soon! That’s such a quick turnaround. Mine was about four months from submission to viva. Anyway, I’m sure you’ll kick ass. Let me know how it goes.

  5. Brian
    May 14, 2014 at 10:07 pm

    Replying to 2.5 year old blog posts, Yeah!

    I think you make quite a number of fair points. It is interesting that most caucasian english-speaking people would shrug at a fake British accent or fake American accent but would consider it horribly offensive if the same person put on a fake chinese accent. A bit of a double standard I suppose.

    Personally, I am never really offended by accents, in fact I am eager to hear how people from other countries interpret my (New Yorker) patterns of speech. However, this obviously is not the case for everyone. I can certainly understand why others might be offended by such a thing, and they have just as much right to find it offensive as I do to be indifferent. So I guess one should indeed be careful with how and when they imitate other culture’s patterns of speech.

    Also, when I have travelled internationally, I have found it so interesting that while I felt like I was surrounded by people who spoke strangely… I was really the one with the funny accent.

    Damn, languages are interesting.

    • May 15, 2014 at 1:46 pm

      Ha! Wow, you picked an old one! How did you find this one??

      • Brian
        May 15, 2014 at 4:09 pm

        Google search for “Why are fake accents considered offensive”

  6. Brian
    May 15, 2014 at 4:20 pm

    EDIT: Exact phrasing that make your blog show up is “Why are accents offensive”. Which, interestingly, is a lot less close in meaning to what I was really asking, and you are actually saying.

    I was prompted in light of a recent story where some kid got fired from a fast food place for using a fake accent and offending a customer. I certainly agree it was childish and inappropriate, but thought having him fired was excessive. The customer should have asked him to apologize, and not immediately seeked to have him terminated. So I wanted to see if anyone had discussed online about why we consider fake accents to be offensive sometimes… but funny other times.

    Full disclosure:
    When I am on the phone with customer service for an many hours on end, I often put on a fake accent just to keep myself entertained and prevent myself from going mad with the usual frustrations that happen when calling tech support. I figured there is no way the customer service representative can truly know. So I was curious as to if doing this was a bit racist… it seems like the answer may be yes… But honestly it has been such an effective tool for keeping me sane while spending 3 hours on the phone with customer service that I don’t really want to stop it.


  7. Kevin
    June 21, 2016 at 3:41 am

    Really interesting. I’m from US and happen to love hearing accents–especially from the UK. I actually stumbled on your piece via a Google search hoping to see how people in exactly your situation respond to mimicry. It doesn’t take too much imagination to realize that it would likely be uncomfortable if the roles swapped and people from another region started speaking with my accent.

    That said, I thoroughly enjoy hearing accents (mostly from films or tv) and even prefer British pop culture and humor. But behind closed doors, I joke around and speak in various UK accents in a way I wouldn’t feel comfortable doing in the presence of someone from the respective lineage or culture. I really do respect and adore the very defining (relative) eccentricities that I’m playfully mimicking. And this raises the question: is it rude to act this way in front of–we’ll just say you in this case; OR is it rude to do at all, regardless of who’s present?

    I don’t consider myself especially racist or xenophobic. But I realize that such distinctions arent necessarily reached intentionally and probably won’t have nice name tags to remind us of our specific topics of ignorance.

    • June 21, 2016 at 5:03 pm

      Hi Kevin! Glad you found this blog, it’s been a while since it was last updated, so I wasn’t sure how well it shows up on Google etc! I think it’s hard to attach a ‘rude/not rude’ value on something like imitation, because I do genuinely think that most of the time it’s done with some sort of affection and/or (innocent) humour, rather than any sort of attempt at belittlement or marginalisation. The issue is that imitation is used to exactly these things as well, so knowing someone’s intentions can occasionally be difficult to determine. So I suppose it comes down to how well do you know your intended audience, and will the intention be well-received and understood for what it is. Probably best to avoid it if there’s any doubt, but then I’m getting into the whole policing thing, which I always feel uncomfortable doing! Best, Rob

  1. March 6, 2012 at 4:26 pm

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