Universiteit Leiden

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PhD project

The Performative Force of Accented Speech: Language, Body, and Violence

This research examines the social, political, and cultural forces that structure people’s responses towards accented speech, and further uses the accent as a focal point to theorize the interrelation between language and body.

2015 - 2020
Tingting Hui

In the contemporary globalized world, the accent marks a distinction between insiders and outsiders. That the differentiation of accented speakers from ‘native speakers’ sometimes can invoke hostility and violence typically reconfirms existing socio-political and cultural hierarchies. Through an analysis of theoretical, philosophical and literary texts that reflect on accented speech, or that dramatize the implications of speaking with an accent, this project aims to 1) investigate the socio-political and cultural dynamics that take place when accented speech resounds publicly and 2) map the different modes of speaking that are available to accented speakers. 

This project aims to develop a new set of tools, concepts and reading strategies that enables us to understand the social, political and cultural role of language in the contemporary context of globalization and migration. A critical attention to the discursive nature of the accent and the politics of its construction contributes to ongoing debates on political and societal openness to linguistic diversity, and the substantial gap between multilingual practices and the monolingual paradigm that is still dominant in western societies.

This project uses ‘accented speech’ to refer to a phonetically and/or grammatically distinctive way of speaking. Based on J. L. Austin’s speech act theory, Judith Butler and Shoshana Felman understand speech as a bodily act that problematizes the opposition between the mental and the physical (See Butler 1997, Felman 2003). This viewpoint makes it possible to conceptualize ‘accented speech’ as a specific type of speech act that produces ‘conventional consequences’ of ethnolinguistic hatred and/or identification, and to further analyze these consequences at the level of the intertwined relation between language and body.

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