Courtesy of Pan Macmillan
By Katy Steinmetz
October 21, 2014

You might think you don’t have an accent, but you do. And should you need help coping with this truth, you can consult a growing crowd-sourced map of people uttering one English word from all over the world: potato.

Thanks to the authors of a new book on accents called You Say Potato, you can listen to Christopher from Alabaster, Ala., say “puh-tay-tuh” (and admit that he sometimes says “tater” instead). You can hear actor Stephen Fry lyrically explain from Norfolk, England how he utters “poh-TAY-toh.” Then you can amble over to India and listen to Nitin pronounce “pah-TAT-oh” from Bangalore. You can also add your own potato and location to the map, which already has spud markers from six continents.

The book was written by a father-son team, linguist David Crystal and actor Ben Crystal, who is known for performing Shakespeare in the “original pronunciation.” The book is full of information about the kinds of people voice agents are seeking out to do commercials and how Americans came to use their “r’s” so differently than today’s Londoners. The elder Crystal explains that while it’s hard to say precisely why an accent originates, much variation has come from people imitating dominant members of a group or people that they like.

 

The treatise also comes with a social-justice message: accents are everywhere, and no one anywhere should be judging people based on how they say potato. “People are very ready to criticize other people’s accents,” Crystal says. “There’s no correlation between accents and intelligence or accents and criminality, but people do make judgments.” The potato map is, on that level, an invitation to listen to how diverse English can be and take a moment to appreciate those differences rather than, say, deciding right off that a person who says dahhhling is in some way better than a person who says darlin’, or vice versa.

“Our accent is the most important index of identity that we’ve got. Everybody wants to say who they are and where they’re from. And the easiest and cheapest and most universal way of doing that is through their accent,” Crystal says. “There is no such thing as an ugly accent, like there’s no such thing as an ugly flower.”

As of Tuesday, more than 640 people had submitted recordings and Crystal says they expect to be past 1,000 soon. Here’s encouraging everyone to add their voices to the mix with pride, especially if anyone has ever told them they talk funny.

This is an edition of Wednesday Words, a weekly feature on language. For the previous post, click here.

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