Recently, I watched a TV documentary about the proliferation of Nomura jellyfish in Japanese coastal waters. It was a shocking tale of the devastating environmental, economic, social and human impact of overfishing, global warming and marine pollution. The reason I’m blogging about the show as a sociolinguist, though, has nothing to do with the content of the documentary but with the fact that the speech of all the Japanese people appearing in the documentary was subtitled – irrespective of whether they spoke Japanese or English. Many of the fishermen, government officials and experts interviewed for the show spoke in Japanese and so it was obviously appropriate for their speech to be subtitled in English for non-Japanese-speaking viewers. By contrast, all the interviews with Professor Shin-ichi Uye of Hiroshima University, the world’s foremost expert on Nomura jellyfish, were in English. He spoke English with a Japanese accent but fluently, accurately and idiomatically. I found his speech easy to understand and so was surprised that someone had made the judgment that his speech was unintelligible to the degree that it needed subtitles in the same way that those speaking Japanese needed subtitles.
This is not the first time that I (who watches TV very rarely) have wondered about the ways in which subtitles work to make speakers sound (or, rather, look) not only unintelligible but also deficient and illegitimate. Earlier this year, for instance, the advertising block during the evening news ended with a preview of a show about migration, in which a migrant engineer from Colombia spoke about her experiences of settlement in Australia. She had lived in Australia for a number of years so it’s probably unsurprising that I found her Spanish-accented English perfectly intelligible. Nonetheless, it was subtitled. Shortly after, there was a news item about soccer violence in Glasgow which included an interview with a Scottish publican. Even with context clues, I had a hard time trying to make out what he was saying. However, this time, there weren’t any subtitles to help.
In yet another example, in August 2010, the evening news featured a report about the 2010 Pakistan floods as well as one about the 5th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. For the former, senior members of Pakistan’s army and civil defense forces were interviewed in English. In my perception, their educated English sounded a bit stilted but perfectly intelligible. It was subtitled. For the Hurricane Katrina report, ordinary New Orleans residents were interviewed. Their broad Southern American English was difficult for me to understand but – you guessed it! – there were no subtitles.
Is it possible that I am so out of touch with my speech community that I find accents that no one else understands intelligible and that I find accents unintelligible that everyone else understands? Possible, yes, but unlikely. The fact is that most Australians, just as myself, are likely to have more exposure to Australian English with a Spanish accent than to Glaswegian, or to an educated Commonwealth accent from Pakistan than a Southern drawl.
Subtitling varieties of English (as opposed to foreign languages) is thus a matter of ideology and identity construction as much as a matter of intelligibility. In the examples I have described here, the pattern is obvious: native speakers of English are presumed to be universally intelligible on Australian TV, even if theirs is a distant and obscure dialect. The speech of non-native speakers, by contrast, is presented as problematic and unintelligible even if they speak educated Standard English.
Familiarity with an accent is a key aspect of intelligibility. So, if the more familiar varieties are subtitled while less familiar ones are not, subtitling is clearly an exercise in linguistic subordination (a fact that hasn’t escaped the comedians behind this 2003 Skithouse sketch). Familiarity not only improves intelligibility but also influences attitudes towards speakers positively, as Eisenchlas and Tsurutani demonstrate in a recent matched-guise study. Participants, who were native speakers of Australian English, rated a speaker with Spanish-accented English as the most competent out of speakers of six different varieties of accented English (including standard Australian English) and a speaker with Japanese-accented English as the most attractive speaker. The researchers explain these rather surprising findings as a result of the fact that their participants are foreign language students. Consequently, they make this recommendation for a more equitable and harmonious multicultural society:
employment of non-native speakers within the education system and the introduction of compulsory foreign language study into school curricula will help to broaden people’s perceptions of foreign accented speech from an early age when world views are formed. (p. 234)
Additionally, the media also have an important role to play. All my examples above come from SBS, the broadcaster tasked with “reflecting the multicultural spirit of our own community.” Surely, that includes not branding familiar accents as exotic and illegitimate by subtitling them.