Ever considered becoming a pilot?
Maybe you should. If you're reading this, you probably have the voice for it.
The Los Angeles Times (and later, WCCO) recently reported on a study by travel data website Jetcost. The goal: to find out what kind of accents passengers found most trustworthy in an airline pilot. A little over 4,000 Americans who had flown sometime in the last year were asked which English-speaking accents, if any, would fill them with the most confidence… and the least.
At the head of the pack, 63 percent of the participants said the Upper Midwestern accent made them feel like they were in good hands. It’s followed by Southern Californian, Great Lakes, British, and Eastern New England accents.
The accents that inspired the least confidence, in descending order: Southwestern United States, Central Canadian, General American (evidently a description, and not a bland superhero), New York, and Texan bringing up the rear, with 65 percent giving votes of little faith.
What the Central Canadians have done to us Americans, aside from their occasional behavior on sheets of hockey ice, is unclear.
If you want to organize statewide high-five and laugh at the south, you should probably wait before you gloat. These results are actually nothing surprising.
Implicit bias toward northerners and against southerners goes back pretty much forever, according to Paul Tilleson. He’s a St. Cloud native who’s fixing to get his PhD in linguistics, so he knows a thing or two, and you'd want to believe him if you heard him say it.
Midwestern English, he says, is often considered the yardstick for “good” or “proper” English, and people associate “proper English” with a person of “a certain status.” It’s a distinction he calls “fairly arbitrary” and “mostly sociological,” and it doesn’t even start on this continent.
“Southern states’ English actually arises from older, distinct forms of Scottish English,” he says. “‘I usedta could do that?’ You could find that in Chaucer.”
The only reason passengers are more liable to trust a Midwestern pilot than a Texan pilot is years and years and years of bias and suspicion toward more colloquial dialects. And besides -- as a Minnesotan, you are not actually safe. If your accent is regional enough, strong enough, “all theyat eand a baeg of poh-tae-toh chyips” enough, you’re under suspicion, too.
“I’ve seen studies that say Minnesotans sound ‘weird,’” he says. “‘Fargo-esque.’”
Lest we feel tempted to laugh at our friends from the south, remember: It’s a very thin line that passes between “competent pilot” and “foot sticking out of a wood chipper.”