Native Americans describe the “Rez Accent”
An accent is a way of saying the words in a language that occurs among people from one region or part of a country, but not another.
Many people who study languages, linguists, predicted in the 1960s that accents would disappear in America. As Americans moved across the country, they said English would become standardized, meaning it would be spoken the same way everywhere.
Schooling, mass media like television and radio, people moving to the United States from other places, and increased car and air travel would all contribute to the normalization of English.
But sociolinguist William Labov of the University of Pennsylvania says that while some accents in America are disappearing, others are strengthening.
One of these regional accents is Native American English, known as the “rez accent”. It is spoken in many Native communities in the United States and Canada. The word “rez” is shortened from the word “reservation”. Reservations are areas of land in the United States and Canada that are separated for Native Americans or Indigenous peoples to live on.
Kalina Newmark is from the Sahtu region in the Northwest Territories of Canada. Her ancestors called themselves the Dene people, but she does not speak the Slavic language of her tribe.
“My mother can understand it and speak it, but she did not send it to us. She learned it from her great-grandmother. My grandmother chose not to pass on the language because she wanted to make it easier for her children when they went to school,” Newmark said.
Newmark went to Dartmouth College in the US state of New Hampshire. The school is known for its Indigenous student population.
There she met other Native students from across North America. Newmark noticed something very interesting about everyone pronunciation. The English they spoke shared some similar qualities, even if they came from different linguistic backgrounds.
These especially could be heard during times of socialization. The accent was even present for pupils who had not learned their ancestral language.
Newmark and another student, Nacole Walker, decided to examine the rez accent when given a project to study a non-English language. They realized that the rez accent had never been studied before.
Walker is a Lakota from the Standing Rock Reservation in the states of North and South Dakota. She said linguists have studied other forms of English, such as African American English and Chicano English, spoken by Mexican Americans.
“We knew something unique was coming [with indigenous English] and wanted to shrink down,” Walker said.
They recorded discussions and interviews with 75 people from different tribes and nations throughout North America. Their findings were published in language in society in September 2016.
The Dartmouth team found that indigenous communities speak different English dialectsbut these ways of speaking shared prosody patterns. Prosody describes the “music” of a language. This includes the pitch, pitch, or gravity of voice sounds; rhythm, the rhythm of the stressed and the unstressed syllables; and intonation, or pitch changes when speaking.
James Stanford is a sociolinguist at Dartmouth. He guided the students in their study. He said the most important quality is how the pitch and intonation rise and fall like a song. The characteristic was named after the character“Thomas Builds-the-Fire”, played by Evan Adams from the 1998 film Smoke signals. The film was the first to be directed and acted by Aboriginal people.
The group identified another characteristic that seemed unique to indigenous populations: the tone rises at the end of their sentences. Stanford said that in Standard In English, speakers usually end their sentences by lowering their pitch level. Native speakers end their sentences with a mid or higher tone.
The last important feature is syllable synchronization, or rhythm. Some language experts describe languages like French and Spanish as syllable-timed. “Each syllable takes the same tense,” Stanford said.
English is not rhythmic by syllables. It is stressed, which means that only stressed syllables are pronounced at regular places in speech. Unstressed syllables are shortened. The team noted that the rez accent of English is timed by syllable.
Where does the “Rez” accent come from?
Newmark thinks the rez accent may have come from different Native tribes interacting in the 1880s when Native people were placed on reservations. Native American and First Nations children were forced to go to school and had to speak English.
The rez accent could also have had its beginnings in the 1950s and 1960s when the US government closed some reservations and sent Native Americans to the cities. The children were forced to speak English and interact with each other. “They were all learning English together,” Newmark said, “and doing their own English.”
Twyla Baker is a citizen of the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara nations. She is also president of a native college on the Fort Berthold reservation in North Dakota. She said the Rez accent is a form of adaptation. She said that before Native Americans came into contact with Europeans, tribes connected with each other. They traveled, traded and formed political ties with other tribes. This led many indigenous peoples to learn four or five languages.
Baker knows that many people think the rez accent is not correct English. They may even laugh at it. But she wants Native people to not feel bad about who they are, where they come from and how they speak English.
“I would like our young people to feel accepted not just in the spaces they occupy in Indian Country, but when they leave the reservation,” Baker added.
I am Brian Lynn.
And I’m Faith Pirlo.
Cecily Hilleary wrote this article for VOA. Faith Pirlo adapted it to learn English.
words in this story
native – adj.. produced, living or existing in a certain place or environment
pronunciation – nm how a word is said normally or correctly
unique –adj. unlike everything else
interview -not. a meeting where people talk to each other for information
dialect – nm a form of language that is spoken in a particular region and uses some of its own words, grammar, and pronunciation
pattern – not. a regular and repeated way in which something happens
syllable – nm one part into which a word is naturally divided when pronounced
character – not. a person who appears in a story, book, play, movie, or television show
characteristic – nm usual quality or important part of something
Standard – nm a level of quality, achievement, etc., considered acceptable or desirable
adaptation – not. the state of adaptation or change
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