What’s So Funny About Accents, Anyway?

Desi Arnaz and Sofia Vergara
Corbis; ABC

Latinos are funny. Their accents are not.

“Ricky... promise me that until our child is at least 19 or 20 years old, you won’t talk to it,” said Lucy.

Big laugh.

“Yeah, that sounds even worse with your accent,” said Fred Mertz.

Big laugh.

After learning the sound “ough” can make at the end of words, Ricky said: “Row,” instead of rough. “Thruff,” instead of through. “Coo” instead of cough.

Big laughs.

The punch line? Ricky Ricardo can't speak English very well.

I Love Lucy was a groundbreaking show in so many ways, even being the first to bring a Latino star, Desi Arnaz, to the forefront. Through its six-season, 181-episode run, many hijinks ensued, but sometimes it relied on cheap jokes by making fun of Ricky Ricardo’s accent. And yet, more than 60 years later, it's still happening. 

In a 2012 Saturday Night Live episode hosted by Sofia Vergara, the show ran a skit playing on the shooting of a Pantene commercial. Vergara played herself and Kate McKinnon, with an exaggerated accent, played Penelope Cruz. The audience laughs as Cruz’s thick accent makes tea-dodecylbenzene, arteriovenous plexus and phytomorphogenesis “hard to understand.” Or maybe it’s Vergara stating that even simple words, like Pantene and hair, were also difficult for her to say.

And let’s not forget the CoverGirl Tone Rehab commercial that teams Vergara and Ellen DeGeneres. After Vergara corrects DeGeneres about who was supposed to read a certain line, DeGeneres responds with, “Well, no one can understand you,” before going on to mock her accent by speaking gibberish.

Not only is making fun of accents lazy and completely uncreative, this trend also shows that accents are funny and a fair way to criticize someone else.

But what is so humorous about an accent?

Is it that someone was able to learn a new set of language rules? That they can communicate in more than one language? Or is it that they have made an effort to assimilate?

An August 2013 Gallup poll says that 72 percent of Americans think “it’s essential that immigrants learn English,” a result that has been consistent in the 12 years that the question has been asked.

Americans clearly believe immigrants need to learn English, but TV and movies discourage Latinos by showing that they don’t speak the language perfectly like native speakers, setting them up for mockery.

Using someone’s accent as comedy fodder just reinforces the idea that an accent means a person is unintelligent. These characters are mixing up simple words and not adding value to a conversation, all in the name of comedy.

Jose Barrientos, a comedian who pretended to speak with Mexican-accented English as a social experiment, said in a 2012 interview with the MailOnline, “They think someone with a British accent is more erudite or sophisticated than someone with a Mexican accent. People treat me like I’m stupid when I speak with a Mexican accent.”

But having an accent is not in any way an indication of intelligence. Take Colombian singer Shakira, whose accent has also been mocked on Saturday Night Live, for example. She speaks several languages fluently, writes her own music and has an accent.

An accent, when it’s a result of learning another language, happens when someone substitutes difficult-to-pronounce sounds with sounds that are found in their mother tongue. And that’s all it is.

It doesn’t offer insight into a person, it doesn’t define someone, and it’s certainly not a joke.

The good news is there are some TV shows and movies that appreciate how funny Latinos can be. Parks and Recreation, which stars Latina cover girl Aubrey Plaza, featured Gary Carlos Cervantes as a city council candidate with an accent. The punchline? He’s not just passionate about animals -- he’s downright extreme. Part of his platform is the belief that anyone who even lays hands on a leather jacket should be tried for murder.

No one made a mention of his accent. And that made me, and hopefully the audience, appreciate the joke even more.