The Baltimore accent has faded a bit over the years, and depending on how much credence you put into surveys, part of the reason might be Darwinian: Some people born in Bawlmer, Merlin think the accent harms their job prospects and, thus, their incomes and, thus, the quality of their lives.
A survey of 3,000 recent job applicants revealed that most tend to cloak their regional accents and opt for pronunciations considered more proper for life in the 21st century. They think that will help them land jobs and good pay.
It’s survival of the primmest.
As one who was raised in Massachusetts, where “my fatha pahked the cah in the yahd,” I’ve been reminded of my pronunciations many times over “foddy-seven years” in Bawlmer. In working here as a broadcaster from time to time, I thought I had shaken the New England accent. But apparently it lingers. So I still get the vexing question: “You a Red Sox fan?”
Despite this, I’ve never felt the Darwinian pressure to fully erase my native accent. Others apparently have tried harder.
The subject line of a recent press release caught my eye: “A Baltimore Accent Could Cost Job Seekers $9k a Year, Study Reveals.”
The “study” was actually an online survey conducted by an outfit I’d never heard of, called the Writing Tips Institute. This “institute” appears to be a website with essays and writing advice from several authors, led by a Texas-based marketing and financial specialist named Shaun Connell.
Connell says he conducted the survey to “determine how many people alter their accents during job interviews due to concerns about dialect discrimination.”
(Pardon me while I have an interlude: Note that the words “accent” and “dialect” are used interchangeably. This is common. However, the words do not have the same meaning. An accent might be part of a dialect, but it pertains mostly to pronunciation. A dialect refers to vocabulary and grammar, the unique words and expressions of a region. … Now back to our regularly scheduled column.)
The Writing Tips Institute found that nearly 40% of the people in its survey — and 44% of those with a Baltimore accent — said they alter and “soften” their regional accents in job interviews in the hopes that a more “standard” speech pattern will help them land a position.
There’s been more sophisticated research on accents and job prospects. Researchers at the University of Chicago and the University of Munich collaborated on a study in Germany, with its many regional dialects, and concluded that workers with a strong accent took a hit in income.
The study, published by the National Bureau of Economic Research in 2020, looked at German workers. But researchers found similar “occupational sorting” in the U.S. among workers with distinctive speech.
“Abundant literature in both countries shows that people have strong views about the speech of others,” the researchers said. “Our results show that the wage penalty that may stem from these views is quite sizable. … All of our estimators show that speaking with a distinctive regional accent reduces wages by an amount that is comparable to the gender wage gap.”
The Department of Labor estimates that, on average, women who work full time earn 83.7% of what men are paid. The Chicago-Munich researchers concluded that workers with strong regional accents take a slightly heavier hit in wages, up to 20%.
The Writing Tips Institute says it got to the $9,000 “accent penalty” for Baltimoreans by basing its estimate on 20% of an average state salary of $48,000.
(Pardon me while I have another interlude: I don’t know where that last number comes from. The Census Bureau listed the state’s per capita income in 2021 at $45,915. Now back to our column.)
I have no doubt that Americans with thick regional accents experience both subtle and blatant forms of discrimination. Certain accents grate on people and spark their prejudices.
On the other hand, I’m sure many people are aware they have an accent and, sensing that it could be a problem, strive for a neutral sound.
This self-consciousness could be a reason why the Bawlmer accent has faded a bit, as have other regional accents. It’s part of “the great homogenization” that has evolved over the last century across the country. Before radio and television, people only heard the voices around them — those of their families and neighbors. In the age of mass media, however, they heard the “American standard,” a neutral, mid-western broadcaster voice, and over time that became an ideal.
There are lots of reasons you might not hear the Bawlmer accent as much as you used to. Americans are mobile and move around a lot; we settle in new states, new cities. So there’s a good chance your neighbors did not graduate from the local high school.
At the other end of that are Baltimoreans who left the region and the state for college or a job. The more they heard the “American standard,” the more they slipped into it.
I don’t worry too much about this. I still get around enough to hear an authentic, homegrown Bawlmer accent, and when I do, I am reassured that a sound distinctive to the region remains. But I also hear so many other accents — from Jamaica and Central America, from Eastern Europe and the Eastern Shore, from the Middle East, from South Korea and China and India — and it’s all good.