Accent on... err... accents

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

I mentioned in my last post about the circuitous route I had getting back to Canada for Christmas this year. I started on a flight from Heathrow to Newark, New Jersey which was naturally populated mostly by Brits and Americans.  The hop from New Jersey to Denver was, unsurprisingly, full of Americans.  But when I got to the departure lounge in Denver for a flight from Denver to Saskatoon I could tell, right away, that this was a flight to Canada. There must be a sort of patriotic version of gay-dar that kicks in with ex-pats when they sense they are among their own kind. It might be a little bit about dress and temperament. But mostly, it's about the accent.  I listened in on conversations in that departure lounge and smiled to myself and thought, "These are my people!"

For most of my life I've been unable to hear my own accent and I think that's probably not unusual for people who grow up speaking English in North America.  This means that, despite the fact that "My Fair Lady" is one of my favourite shows ever, I didn't appreciate until I got to London exactly how important and defining an accent is over there.  The pervasiveness of the class system in England is a topic far beyond my ability to either explain or even comprehend so don't expect a scholarly essay on that topic here any time soon.  However, despite the fact that people would probably agree class plays a smaller role than it once did, it is still inescapable.  And one of the most blatant markers of class is accent.

Here's a little anecdote about how inescapably perceptions of class and power are tied to accent.  I have a colleague who told me a story about when he was called for jury duty.  His accent is what is often referred to as "Received Pronunciation" or sometimes "BBC English": a standard "posh" accent.  As Wikipedia says, "Although there is nothing intrinsic about RP that marks it as superior to any other variety, sociolinguistic factors have given Received Pronunciation particular prestige in parts of Britain.  It has thus been the accent of those with power, money and influence since the early to mid 20th century...". So my friend sat through the trial alongside his fellow jurors and eventually found himself in the jury room to deliberate the case.  As instructed by the judge, the first thing the group did was to decide on a foreman.  Whether they'd already had the chance to chat with each other, or whether they did introductions in the jury room is not clear.  What is clear is that my friend was the only one in the room with a posh accent.  What's also clear is that with no previous discussion or vote, the rest of the members of the jury turned to him and said, "So you'll be the foreman, then."  His accent clearly marked him as the leader, and everyone in the room simply acknowledged it and got down to business.

(This is the kind of thing that makes me realises I'll never truly understand the culture simply because I didn't grow up in it.  It's like trying to learn Japanese and being unable to master it completely without an inborn understanding of your status relative to everyone else in the room, which affects salutations and honorifics and verb forms, the subtleties of which make the choice between vous and tu akin to  Leonardo choosing between a 6" wide wallpaper brush and a medium pile paint roller when approaching the Mona Lisa.)

Here's another story about Received Pronunciation which may be apocryphal, but I never claimed to be an authority on the subject, and three-quarters of this blog is just crap I pull out of thin air anyways.  (Anyways!  Very Canadian that: anywayS instead of anyway.) Anywaaaaays - its quite common in the UK for front line call centre staff to have a Geordie accent.

Astute GSWPL readers will remember Geordie Mouse from a previous Words post, but I couldn't resist bringing him back.

Apparently there is something friendly and comforting about having your concerns listened to by someone with a Geordie accent.  However, if the conversation heats up and the call has to be transferred up the ladder to an authority figure, you can bet that someone will have an RP accent.  When Brits need to exhibit power and control, nothing beats Received Pronunciation.

But back to me.  I've been living away from Canada for three years now and it's taken that long for my ears to start to hear what for others my be blatant.  I think this is partly because Canada has relatively little variation in regional accents.  Apart from the obvious - the Newfie/Martiime accent (which owes a lot to Ireland) and the Quebec accent (which isn't really fair since French speaking Quebecers are naturally going to sound different when working in a second language) - Canadian English is a pretty homogenous thing.  I'm leaning heavily on Wikipedia here, but the good people there only list nine different varieties of Canadian English, which is frankly about five more than I would have guessed.  Contrast that with the UK, which has thirty three and that's not including Northern Ireland or the Republic or the Channel Islands.  Perhaps it's no wonder the English are so sensitive to accents - they are positively bathed in them from birth.

Then again, not everyone over here is a natural born Henry Higgins.  Some time ago I was standing on the sidewalk waiting for an errant truck to arrive to load something in or out of somewhere.  As I was peering up and down the street trying to locate my truck a woman walking on the other side called out to me, asking if I knew where the train station was.  I replied in my standard West/Central Canadian accent and when I finished she looked at me and asked, "Are you Welsh?".  Ummm... yeah sure... and the Queen is from Yellowknife.

Eve Myles and "Torchwood" taught me what a Welsh accent sounds like. Plus the show rocks.

So it's been three years now, and I'm finally starting to be able to hear whispers of what shouts at everyone else.  And I've realised that I dial my own accent up or down according to the circumstance (except when I've had a few pints, when the Canadian vowels apparently get a bit thick).  I think this flexibility comes from travelling so much and spending so much time interacting with people for whom English is a second (or third, or ninth) language. It feels natural to knock the corners off a bit and contract the vocabulary to give non English natives a fighting chance.  Maybe that's stuck with me now that I'm settled abroad; it's not that I expect people won't be able to understand me in an English speaking country, it's just kind of an instinct.  So when I'm in England, I keep my accent down to a dull roar.  Still, no one will ever mistake me for a local and I can never envision a time when I'd be able to say "I could have DAWNCED all night" without feeling like a complete fraud.  My foreign-ness is, however, still obvious enough that canny Brits I've just met will say something like, "I can't place your accent..." when really they mean, "You sound American, or maybe Canadian, but I can't quite tell the difference, and I know it might be insulting to assume you're American if it turns out you're Canadian, so help me out here."

For me, the difference between a Canadian and an American accent is usually obvious, and my spidey senses tingle when I hear the loud nasal tone of a gang of American tourists on the tube reading out the station names on the map.  Then again, even that instinct sometimes fails me.  I had a colleague on the Ceremonies who I was convinced was American.  He was just a bit too loud and annoying to be Canadian.  Imagine my chagrin when I found out he was a countryman.  It was like he was letting down the side.  I realise this makes it sound like I think all Americans are loud, nasal and annoying which is, of course, not at all true.  Many individual Americans I know are lovely people.  And as a nation they actually managed to elect and then re-elect Barack Obama so maybe I should lay off them a bit.  (Still, they do have a lot to answer for.  Like, for instance, aerosol cheese.)

But back to me again.  For the record, here are a few of the things I can now hear in a heavy Western Canadian accent.  We tend to say "tuh" instead of "to" and "in-tuh" instead of "into", "fer" instead of "for" and "yer" instead of "your".  And final "ty"s in words are often turned into "dy"s or lost completely.  As in, "I'm goin' tuh the store fer beer. I'll be gone fer about twenny minutes. Do ya need anything fer yer pardee at the Cummunidy Cenner?"  (This is obviously a broad interpretation, but I think it's pretty much right.  Or should I say "priddy" much?)

We've got a charming insistence on pronouncing every syllable in every word, a habit that's completely alien in places where "Leicester" is pronounced "Lester" and "Cholmondeley" is unaccountably truncated to "Chumley".  We also give the humble "R" its due and actually pronounce it, whereas Brits generally treat an R in the middle of a word as a kind of silent placeholder.  There's also... I don't know... a quality of earnest perkiness?  It's hard to quantify, but I know that whenever someone over there imitates my accent their voice goes up and it's a bit like they're pretending to be a cartoon character.  Sort of like this guy:

He's just givin' 'er.

Listening for accents has become a bit of a sport for me, and everyone in the country is my coach.  I'm forever nudging a friend or co-worker and whispering, "Is that Scouse or Brummie?  Or "Oh, I know that one... VERY Northern Ireland!"  I'm not good at imitating other accents myself, but my ears are definitely learning to hear not only the accents of others, but my own too.

But I'm telling you, I do NOT say aboot.

Bonus New Zealand accent joke: Recent studies indicate that men in New Zealand think about six every sivin minutes. (Hearing the difference between an Aussie and a Kiwi accent is a bit like hearing the difference between Americans and Canadians.  Subtle, and best left to natives.  Though the Kiwis really do have some odd vowel sounds.  For instance, they write with pins and surf the antuh-nit.)

Additional bonus generic Canadian joke that doesn't have anything to do with accents but is still funny: How do you get a group of Canadian out of a swimming pool in an emergency? You say: "Please get out of the swimming pool."


Cori said...

Oh, I'm sorry, was being in the pool troublesome? I'll get out immediately. I didn't mean to be a bother.

Donna said...

Your toque is called a toboggan in the American South, which leads to interesting images of sleds on their heads.

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