I heard a radio advertisement from the local zoo for an Australian Outback exhibit. The narrator spoke in a thick, caricature Aussie accent. It made me wonder: When is it acceptable to imitate an accent, and when is it taboo?
After extensive internet research, here are 10 unwritten rules floating around in the internet ether so you can stay politically correct.
1. You can mimic an accent in advertising but not at a state dinner.
An Australian accent may not raise eyebrows in a commercial. But former British prime minister David Cameron landed in hot water for his over-accurate account of a conversation with the Australian prime minister. If you curious about its quality, watch here:
2. If you imitate an accent and happen to be the ethnicity associated with said accent, you’ll probably stay out of trouble.
YouTube star “Superwoman” became famous by producing humorous videos. In many of these she impersonates her Indian born parents. She seems to have gotten away with it. (So far.)
3. Caucasian individuals must only imitate Caucasian accents.
You may not have the luxury of Superwoman. (See rule #2). Stick to your kind like the cast of Downton Abbey.
(Imagine if the cast had imitated Superwoman’s parents! Good thing they knew rules #2 and #3!)
4. If you don’t pronounce foreign words correctly, you seem culturally ignorant.
My grandma instilled in me a deep mistrust of anyone who uses “L” sounds in “tortilla”. (For those of you scratching your heads, its pronounced tor-tee-aa.)
5. Accurately pronounce foreign words with caution, you could be culturally appropriating.
You might laugh at this video, but remember when your college roommate came back from abroad? Suddenly they were the enlightened cultural connoisseur. You rolled your eyes at this charade:
(Keep in mind rule #3 and rule #4)
6. Stand-up comedians apparently have license to imitate accents in routines.
Voice actor and comedian Sean Ruttledge says, “I’m a comic, I do it for laughter…It's all about context and intent, the funny voices aren't necessarily meant to offend.
7. Stand-up comics should know their history.
Oliver Double, an expert of comedy at the University of Kent, says context matters. He warns comics, “With comic routines, people are more touchy if the group you are impersonating has a history of serious prejudice.”
(Also see rules #1, #4, and #6)
8. You can use one in private joking with friends
If you’re not a public figure, you’re in the clear to be jovial about accents among friends you know and trust. Or you can be a public figure and imitate accents with other public figures…
9. Don’t imitate an accent while joking with friends (if one of those friends ethnically represents the accent you are imitating).
One word. AWKWARD.(However, see rule #2)
10. Do your research!
After conducting an unofficial survey of family and friends, I found that the following accents generally are not acceptable:
Spanish (Latin American Spanish)
Conversely, I polled them about which accents are perfectly acceptable to imitate:
Spanish (Peninsular-or Spain-Spanish)
(however, see rules #2 and #3)
The jury is in. What is acceptable appears to rest largely in the eye (or ear, rather) of the beholder. This is not to say that some social taboos are not in order. Prudence matters, and it makes sense to be sensitive to people’s feelings and recent history. What’s clear is that unwritten rules about accents are confusing and difficult to navigate.
Should rules be dependent on whether people feel offended? If so, the wisest course might be to avoid accents all together. Except I'll keep my native Minnesota one, don't ya' know?
NOTE: This is an unofficial list. Please conduct your own research prior to imitating an accent.
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Rosalinda Rosales is an Alcuin Intern at Intellectual Takeout and finds time to write in between her duties with the Development Department. She is completing her university studies in Saint Paul, Minnesota. In her spare time she likes discovering local coffee shops, listening to indie folk, and spending time with friends and family.