On accents

After an afternoon exploring part of Vienna, eating apple strudel and sampling schnapps after dinner, Elena, her partner Thor, and I stayed up talking late into the night. Thor, from Iceland, was fascinated by my accent. I ended up explaining that both of my parents moved around a bit, especially my mom; I have lived in four states; the city I grew up in had five active military bases and most of my friends were somehow affiliated with the military, and thus from all over the country. Not to mention the fact that I have lived the last five and a half years in a corner of Scotland, though my housemates and colleagues were mostly English, American, and German.

I have written before about how my accent confuses people. I have had strangers insist that I am Canadian (or if I wasn’t, my parents were), ask if I am Dutch, and comment that I had excellent English for being German (!). Usually people would guess accurately that I was from North America, though they couldn’t pinpoint from where. When learning that I am (mostly) from Texas, the inevitable response is: “Texas?! But you don’t sound like you’re from Texas!” At these moments, I feel frustrated, flabbergasted, flustered: my accent proved that I was not from here even though I had lived in the UK for years and was making it my home.

Inversely, I have had family members and friends claim that I “sound British”. I have had strangers stop me in bookstores in Texas and ask me where I am from. “From here…” I would say, to their surprise, and then explain that I lived overseas. At these times my accent was a source of pride as it so clearly demonstrated that I have travelled, that indicated that I am not quite as from here as I claimed.

But at the same time, it can leave me with a sense of homelessness. I don’t sound like my parents. I don’t sound like my friends. I don’t even hear my own accent — I just sound like myself. Even though I unconsciously mirror some of the pronunciation of whomever I am speaking with, I still don’t sound like them. Probably the only other people I sound like are North American ex-pats in the UK. My accent is a conglomeration of all the places I have been and the people I have talked to; it is, as I commented to Thor, lost somewhere over the Atlantic.

One good thing has come out of this confusion of accents, however. While losing a sense of my own accent, I have also become somewhat deaf to accents in general. As a result, I’m fairly good at understanding English regardless of the speaker’s native tongue. (Well, to be fair, the Fife accent still throws me for a loop from time to time.)

I know that some of my readers are also widely travelled, both within their home countries and without. Have you noticed your own accent changing? What do you make of it?

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4 thoughts on “On accents

  1. Elise says:

    I grew up in southern Oklahoma and had a thick southern accent until I was in middle school, at which point it mostly went away because . . . I’m not sure. I imagine it had something to do with the fact that my parents didn’t really have thick accents (in spite of their both being born and raised in Oklahoma), and their influence won out over that of my peers. College had an effect as well, even in a place like Shawnee–but I’m sure I still had a bit of an accent, even if I couldn’t detect it. I remember being really surprised when I was working in Michigan between my junior and senior years (of college) to hear someone say that they could “hear the Oklahoma” in me. Interestingly, I also picked up some northern-isms from co-workers that summer.

    Now that I’ve been out of Oklahoma for eight years, most of which I’ve spent in Indiana, I speak almost squarely midwestern English (including long “o” and “a” sounds), save those times when I’m home or talking to my immediate family back in Oklahoma, who now almost all sound to me like they have ridiculously thick southern accents.

    Living in China for the past year and a half has made things linguistically interesting for me. It hasn’t affected my English accent, because I mostly don’t speak English while I’m here–and I would never pick up one of the local accents, anyway. I find, though, that I do make strange grammatical/syntactical mistakes when I speak English these days (likely a result of the strange English that’s all over public spaces here, and the strange things people say when they want to practice the language). When I was in the States at the end of last year, speaking almost exclusively English for the first time in more than a year, I had about three weeks in which I constantly said the exact opposite of what I meant to say, which was a very bizarre feeling. Word recall is also very difficult for me these days, when writing or translating or talking.

    I think I’m pretty good at picking up accents, like you, hence my ability to “lose” a childhood accent, to transition from southern to midwestern English fairly easily, and to pick up bits of the New Jersey accent that I hear when I visit my boyfriend and his family there.

    And with Uyghur and Chinese it’s interesting as well: when I speak Chinese, I still have a northeastern China accent in spite of living in the northwest, because the northeast is where I learned the most Chinese I’ve ever learned (20 hours of class a week, a pledge to speak no language other than Chinese for nearly 4 months). I don’t speak a whole lot of Chinese in Urumchi these days. I speak Uyghur basically all the time, though, and in Urumchi I often hear that I have a Kashgar accent (I lived there for a summer in my early days of studying Uyghur, and my closest friends in Urumchi are from there and definitely influence my speech). When I go to Kashgar, though, people tell me that I speak “kind of” Kashgar-ish, but definitely like an Urumchi gal–fair, given how much time I’ve lived in Urumchi once I add it all up.

    The issue of UK accents is astounding. Last year I occasionally hung out with a group of expats from the UK. All of them had strikingly different accents, and sometimes I was left asking myself whether I really knew English. I often just nodded at idioms that I didn’t understand and pretended like I knew what someone was saying to me.

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    • Chera says:

      Thanks for your comment, Elise! It is fascinating to hear your story, too. I can’t remember exactly what your accent was like, but I don’t recall it being a strong one, either.

      The UK has a lot of regional accents. My housemate for two years spoke with an RP (received pronunciation) accent, which is the “typical” one Americans think of as the British accent. But another friend of mine was from northern England and she spoke slightly differently. You could tell by the way she said her vowel sounds. That’s just a general north/south difference, but then you can get more localized accents like Liverpudlian and Glaswegian.

      That’s interesting what you say about your spoken English being affected by speaking in Chinese and Uyghur. I noticed that too, while I was studying Spanish in Barcelona. As a result of speaking Spanish half the time and speaking English with non-native speakers, I found myself making syntactical and grammatical mistakes too. I noticed this over the past couple of years too, as my housemates and my ex-boyfriend were all Germans, and I found myself mimicking some of their syntactical quirks. And I’ve heard of this happening the “other direction”, too, as a friend of mine from Belgium who has lived in the UK and the US for years finds himself making mistakes when speaking French to his family. It can be disconcerting to realise that you are making mistakes in your mother tongue… but it’s also fascinating that this can happen at all. What do you make of it?

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      • Elise says:

        My linguist friends talk about the phenomenon being a form of language attrition caused by the lexical and grammatical interference of L2 (also, L3, L4, etc.) with L1. A Wikipedia article on language attrition (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Language_attrition) offers a pretty good overview of what people have theorized about it.

        It makes sense to me based on personal experience. I know that I feel sometimes as though Uyghur (and to a lesser extent, Chinese) is fighting for space with English in my brain. These days I speak so much Uyghur that those words and “ways of saying” are automatic. I’m never going to *lose* English, because I didn’t start seriously learning these languages until age 23 and later, but when I need to recall English, I often find myself saying “um, um, um” and snapping my fingers as I stall to conjure up a word or phrase. At one point last year it took me five embarrassing minutes to come up with “in the blink of an eye” when translating an equivalent idiom from Uyghur (we could render the phrase in Uyghur literally as “until he closed and opened his eyes”). I knew–really frustratingly so!!–that there was/is a similar idiom in English, but it took me far too long to produce it. (I had to move on to other lines in the text and just let myself produce it unconsciously.) Productive ability is obviously closely intertwined with habit and daily practice, certainly for me.

        In Indiana I spend a lot of time with a mix of non-native English speakers, and some of their perfectly understandable but still incorrect speech patterns have definitely influenced mine. Sometimes I use “wrong speech” because I genuinely like some of the cute things my friends say. Other times it’s just because it has become habit for me to hear incorrect speech and process it as fine. So long as it’s understandable, it fulfills most of the fundamental requirements of human language.

        My grammar has less interference than does my lexicon, but I do find that I do sometimes misuse verb tenses in English, and I occasionally mess up word order. I think the real issue is that I can no longer speak without thinking, because in my mind there co-exist multiple ways of making a single statement.

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