Accents in children's animated featiures
as a device for teaching children
to ethnocentrically discriminate

Eric Wenke
LING 057

Language and Popular Culture

Spring 1998


The following paper concerns the use of accents in children's animated features. Lippi-Green's (1997) claim that animated features teach children to ethnocentrically discriminate by portraying bad characters with foreign accents is examined in the context of recent and classic Disney films. In addition, representations of animal communication and social dialect are demonstrated to be instrumental to the shaping of specific Disney characters as villainous. A review of film literature, psycho- and socio-linguistic scholarly journals, and viewings of specific Disney animated features are utilized to demonstrate the importance of character accents in teaching children to discriminate between character roles in the films.

Literature review

The main documentation for this paper was taken from English with an Accent: Language, ideology and discrimination in the United States, by Lippi-Green (1997). The book explores language subordination in the United States as a means to maintain the status quo. Specifically, the paper focuses on Lippi-Green's claim that animated features teach children to ethnocentrically discriminate. In order to explore Lippi- Green's claim, a definition of accent and the social ramifications of accented speech are taken from Sociophonology by John Honey (1997). A theory on the «non-authentic» use of foreign language in cinema in order to create effect is taken from «Language and Authenticity,» by Schiffman (1998). Furthermore, the recent explosion in the use of British accents in American television and the stereotypes it conveys is explored by Gould (1998). Research on the ability of children to assign social status based on speech patterns is taken from Giles(1971) in order to demonstrate that children will perceive the stereotypes associated with character accents. A review of studies by Lambert (1967) is examined to demonstrate how regional and linguistic competence affect the evaluation of one's personality. Finally Leifer, Gordon, and Graves' (1974) theories on the effects of television on the minority child are explored to demonstrate the effects of the association of character accents and negative character portrayals on child viewers.

Statement of Purpose

Lippi-Green (1997) argues that institutions in the US function to subordinate ethnic groups through language. She defines institutions as «any organization which has social and structural importance in the life of a community or society» (Lippi-Green 1997:77). Although she tackles a subset of these institutions including education, news media, the entertainment industry, the business sector, the government and the legal system, in Chapter 5 she specifically highlights Disney animated features as a vehicle for subordination. This paper explores the use of accent to create Disney characters in order to ascertain whether her claim is justified. (Lippi-Green, 1997).

The social ramifications of accented speech: In order to understand Lippi-Green's argument it is important to first define accent and its role in modern society. Lippi-Green defines accent technically as «loose bundles of prosodic and segmented features distributed over geographic and/or social space,» and more loosely as a specific «way of speaking» (Lippi-Green 1997:42). Honey (1997, p.99) breaks down the components of accents into three different classes: indicators, or variants to which little or no social significance is attached, and which may only be perceived by trained linguistic scholars; markers, which are readily perceived and do carry social significance; and stereotypes, or popular but imprecise characterizations of the speech forms of specific social groups. Honey notes that differences among pronunciations carry with them the potential for positive or negative value judgements on the part of the listener. In analyzing the use of accents in Disney features, one is only concerned with markers and stereotypes, because these are the only linguistic cues of variation which are perceptible to the common public.

Honey (1997, p.92) defines sociophonology as the study of «those differences of pronunciation which are perceived as socially significant.» It is this study which is directly relevant to Disney features and Green's argument as it directly addresses the social ramifications of accented speech. According to Honey, the potential for positive or negative judgement of accents stems from the fact that different sounds «encode value systems.» (Honey, 1997:101) American scoiolinguist William Labov (Labov, 1972:36) also commented on this nature of pronunciation when describing the speech patterns of the inhabitants of Martha's Vineyard, an island off the coast of Massachusetts. Labov described a difference in the pronunciation of the vowels in the words right and house between locals of the island and those who come to vacation there in the summer. According to Labov, the locals use these pronunciations unconsciously, but at the same time as a means to assert the idea that they «belong to the island,» as opposed to outsiders. Such a use for pronunciation has been demonstrated to «encode a value system,» as proposed by Honey; namely that those who speak with a certain characteristic pronunciation «belong to the island», more than outsiders who do not speak the same way. (Honey, 1997:101) Motivations for groups to maintain accents, or «ways of speaking,» may include signaling a regional identity, or signaling ethnicity. Groups thus adopt a non-standard accent in order to demonstrate commonality. In describing the reasons for groups to maintain accents, Honey states

This statement brings up an important argument of Lippi- Green's, that there is no such thing as non- accent (or standard accent). She states that non-accent or standard language is not « a particular variety of US English, but a collectively held ideal, which brings with it a series of social and regional associations.» (Lippi-Green 1997:41) This standard language ideology is promoted by institutions in order to devalue anything that is not mainstream and goes against the values of the dominant institutions within a society. By promoting a standard language based on the speech patterns of upper-middle class Caucasians, institutions within a society serve to maintain the status quo. (Lippi-Green, 1997:64-5)

The Language Subordination Model

Lippi-Green develops a language subordination model from these positive or negative evaluations of a speaker's accent. She argues that the dominant institutions of American society are able to make whole groups of people who are negatively affected by standard language ideology cooperate with its ideas. The first step she points out is that, «the process of linguistic assimilation to an abstracted standard is cast as a natural one, necessary and positive for the greater social good.» (Lippi-Green 1997:65) Often, businesses will maintain that it is important for reasons of commerce that employees speak according to a standard language ideal. Similarly, educational systems teach students that it is important that they speak «properly,» or according to a standard language ideal. Such efforts serve to teach groups which do not speak according to a standard language ideal that they «do not fully or adequately possess an appropriate human language» (Lippi-Green, 1997:65). A second feature of this language subordination model is the idea of misrecognition proposed by Taylor (Taylor, 1994).

Misrecognition is defined in this instance as the opposite of recognition, and occurs when groups of people suffer because «the people or society around them mirror back to them a confining or demeaning or contemptible picture of themselves» (Taylor 1994:25) Misrecognition of groups of people reinforces the idea that people with non-standard accents should conform to a standard language ideal. This paper now specifically focuses on whether Disney as part of the dominant media institution creates misrecognition for certain groups through the accents it uses to create its characters in animated features.

Examples of accented characters in Disney features

A specific example of a Disney character who portrays an accent obvious to the viewing public through the use of markers and stereotypes is Scar in the movie The Lion King. Scar is the brother to Mufasa, the strong and noble Lion King. Scar's character stands in direct contrast to that of Mufasa's noble character as he is an envious, scheming lion who plans the murder of his brother and exile of his nephew Simba, the heir to the throne. Scar is drawn to be skinnier and darker than his brother. Differences in animation are thus our first clue into the nature of the two characters. The story takes place in Africa, and the lions are brothers. It would appear then that both brothers should speak with the same accent, and that it should be derived from some African dialect, but this is distinctly not the case. The voice over for Mufasa is provided by James Earl Jones, who speaks with what Lippi-Green calls a mainstream US English (MUSE) accent. In contrast, Jeremy Irons voice over for Scar character speaks with a distinctly British accent. This British accent is very different from the standard English accents of the other characters in the movies, and helps children to distinguish his character. Schiffman argues in «Language and Authenticity» (Schiffman, 1998) that foreign language is used in the media in order to create an effect. He defines authentic language as that which would be used in «real life» situations. Schiffman (1998) argues that such language usage in the media is not authentic but is created in order to draw audience attention. He states, «It is a depiction or representation of language, not a sample of it. It is a depiction of what the director/write/producer ‘thinks' about language use in the real world, Hollywood view of the linguistic world» (Schiffman, 1998:2) This model of foreign language use in cinema appears to fit in this instance. The fact that Scar speaks with a British accent is not authentic to the African plains setting of the movie. It can be argued that the Mufasa character speaks with a standard mainstream accent in order to make the character more accessible to the American audiences the movie was originally intended for. However, this argument does not explain the choice of a British accent for the Scar character. Lance Gould in an article for The Philadelphia Inquirer (Gould, 1998) explores the recent boom in the use of British accents in American television shows. He states that

The choice of a British accent for Scar is intended to highlight his snobbish mannerisms and his feelings of intellectual superiority towards the rest of the plains animals and thus complies with Gould's generalizations about British accents. Gould's statement is also in agreement with the theory of foreign language usage in cinema postulated by Schiffman (Schiffman, 1998), as he points out that the use of a British foreign accent for a non-British character is not authentic, but an intended effect created by the writers and producers.

The same article also highlights the manner in which British accents can be used to create misrecognition. Christopher Hitchens, a Vanity Fair columnist and British émigré to the US states, «There is a general view of Britain as a theme park of quaint characters and eccentrics.» (Gould 1998:2) Scar's speaking with a British accent may thus not only be contrived to display his intellectual superiority, but also to display him as a character who is eccentric (or different), a classification which sets him up to be the butt of a joke. This point is also stated by Jonathan Bernstein, an entertainment writer from Glasgow. Bernstein states that, «A British accent is a good punching bag. You want an authority figure to mock. I think Brits come in handy for that» (Gould 1998:2) This usage of a British accent by Scar mirrors back to «Brits» a contemptible or demeaning picture of a British accent and thus fits Taylor's definition for misrecognition.

This stereotypical use of a British accent for Scar may emanate from an «old cliche` that a British accent represents intelligence, breeding and refinement» (Gould 1998:2). Hitchens postulates that such depictions are examples of «class envy» on the part of Americans towards the British (Gould 1998:2) Seen as such, Scar's use of a British accent may be interpreted as not being contemptible or demeaning, but it is still confining, and thus still fits Taylor's definition of misrecognition.

Another example of a villainous character in a Disney film who speaks with a British accent in contrast to the mainstream standard accents of the other main characters is Jaffar in the movie Aladdin. Aladdin takes place in Agrabbar, a mythical Arabian desert kingdom. There is no reason for any character in the film to speak with a British accent, and thus one must assume it is done for an intended effect, similar to the choice of a British accent for Scar. Whatever the reason for choosing a British accent for these characters, it highlights the association between the British accent and the villainous characters of Scar and Jafar, and may help teach children to ethnocentrically discriminate as Lippi-Green claims. Yet, another example of the creation of misrecognition through the use of foreign accents in Disney characters is the use of minority accents. Lippi-Green highlights one such instance where a contrived Yiddish accent was used in the portrayal of the Big Bad Wolf in the Disney feature Three Little Pigs. In one of his visits to the pigs' house, the Wolf attempts to fool the pigs into opening their door to him by dressing as a Jewish peddler. The Wolf is made to appear like a Jewish peddler by drawing him with «a hook nose, wears sidelocks and a dark broad-rimmed hat similar to one worn by some Orthodox Jews, carries his wares before him, and contrives a Yiddish accent» (Lippi-Green 1997:79) The scene was later reanimated so that the Wolf did not appear Jewish, yet the contrived Yiddish accent survived the reanimation. Lippi-Green argues that the fact that the Wolf no longer appeared Jewish but still spoke with a Yiddish accent contains an «underlying message based in anti-Semitism and fear of the other: a link between the evil intentions of the wolf and things Jewish» (Lippi-Green 1997:80) The voice of the Wolf was later changed to that of a «standard ‘dumb' cartoon voice» in response to complaints that the original Yiddish dialect of the scene was offensive (Lippi-Green, 1997:80).

A further example of the use of minority accents in Disney films occurs in The Lion King with the hyena characters who are voiced by Whoopi Goldberg and Cheech Marin. Goldberg's character's accent fluctuates between that of African American vernacular English (AAVE) and mainstream US English (MUSE). Marin's character speaks with an apparent Hispanic accent which is typical of his comic performances. According to Schiffman's theory (Schiffman, 1998) of foreign language usage in cinema, the accents are intended to add «flavor» to the characters. The accents serve several purposes in the creation of the characters; they serve to set the characters apart from others in the film, they add a comic element to scenes in the movie which feature the hyenas, and they serve to demonize the characters much in the same way that Scar's British accent works. Such portrayals of characters with foreign accents in contemptible, demeaning and confining roles fit the criteria for Taylor's definition of misrecognition Cheech Marin's voice was also utilized for the character of Tito in the Disney film Oliver & Company . Tito is an energetic, small Chihuahua who provides humor to scenes through his constant efforts to pick a fight. Though Marin uses the same accent to portray Tito as the one he used to portray his hyena character in The Lion King, the intent of its use is not to demonize his character. The accent is utilized to enforce a stereotype common to Hispanics in New York; that they are short and scrappy (always willing to fight). This instance of the accent is different from that of The Lion King in that it is not intended to demonize the character of Tito, but still creates misrecognition in that it confines the role of Tito, and makes him the object of laughter and ridicule.

How misrecognition affects child viewers

The ability of children to assign social status based on speech patterns was demonstrated by Giles (Giles, 1971) in a study on the reactions of British school children to British regional and foreign speech. Applied to Lippi- Green's (1997) argument, this research demonstrates that children viewing Disney features are able to discern the differences in character accents, and to make value judgements based on them. However, Giles (Giles, 1971) research focuses on the differences in the speech patterns of the speakers, and pays relatively little attention to the differences between the listeners who performed the evaluation.

Lambert's (1967) review of studies shows that sex, age, social class and regional and linguistic competence affect the evaluation of one's personality. This indicates that the more ethnocentric an individual listener's orientation, the more favorably the would react to speech of a standard accent, and consequently the less favorably they would react to speech of a regional or foreign accent. This review demonstrates that the association of negative images (misrecognition) with character accents in Disney features reinforces perceived regional or ethnic stereotypes.

The concept that misrecognition in the creation of media characters may have an impact on children is supported by literature concerning the impact of television on minority children. Leifer, Gordon, and Graves (1974) suggest that children will change their attitudes about people and activities in order to reflect those portrayed in television programs. This conclusion suggests that media programming serves to not only entertain children, but also to socialize them. Thus, children who view negative portrayals of characters enhanced by character accents, will not only be entertained by such portrayals, but come to adopt negative attitudes towards those who possess the accents portrayed. This concept supports Lippi-Green's claim that Disney features can teach children to ethnocentrically discriminate based on character accents.


Lippi-Green (1997) claims in her language subordination model that the dominant institutions of American society serve to maintain the status quo. In Chapter 5, she specifically highlights Disney animated features as a device for teaching children to ethnocentrically discriminate based on regional or foreign accents. Her argument has been examined by defining what constitutes an accent, what are the social ramifications of accented speech, and how media institutions such as Disney films portray characters with foreign accents. In viewing Disney features, I agree that character accents in the films are often not «authentic» (Schiffman, 1998) and are the intended effect of the director/producer of the film. A review of sociolinguistic literature (Giles, 1971; Lambert, 1967; Liefer, Gordon, and Graves1974) has demonstrated how the use of «non-authentic» accented speech in the media can affect child viewers. This paper thus supports Lippi-Green's (1997) claim that Disney features can teach children to ethnocentrically discriminate by portraying bad characters with foreign accents.