Posted in Of Culturel

Of Accents

"What I enjoy most about sauvignon blanc is saying it."
French Accent Cartoon

I attempted a podcast on accents, but it shall never be heard due to my atrocious American accent. Here is the transcript:

Hi everyone, my name is Amrita, welcome to Of Opinions. I’m trying to do an American accent, cuz some of you that tuned into my previous podcast commented on my Indian accent, and I said I’d do an American one just for fun. Now, it’s not going as well as I hoped. I think it’s been a disaster so far. It’s like a pan-American mock accent that some people do to make fun of it, and not have fun with it. It’s not the case here, cuz I’m trying to do my best at stretching the vowels and emphasizing my r’s cuz I’m too serious to do this without some attempt at perfectionism.

But, anyway, back to normal. It’s a little iffy and problematic right now to be talking about accents, but we are never political or deliberately controversial on Of Opinions, and never will be. But, about two months ago, I did have a few points to make about accents and their significance in cultural education and why a fascination with accents can both be a good thing and a bad thing. Now, how you speak is not an “accent” to you. My bad American one will prove that to my American listeners. It is an accent to those who are interested in phonetics, i.e. the mechanics of pronunciation. But, for the rest of us, it’s something other, a curiosity, that makes you either want to know more about that person’s cultural background or avoid them based on some preconceived notions.

They say, what you wear reflects who you are, which is why first impressions are so important. But, I’d say how you speak either cements or confuses that first impression. I’ve largely grown up in the suburbs which, as it is the case universally, is not as remote and uncouth as city people like to believe. I sound, I hate to use the word, posher than my background, which gives another sort of impression about me that isn’t accurate. Now, this is not due to some aspirational reason, neither is my bad American accent, nor my speaking English in the first place. It is just the way I learnt it.

Language, and self-expression, is an evolving thing. You express yourself differently as a child, as a teenager, in your twenties, thirties and so on. No two people speak the same. For example, Clementine in the film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind pronounces library as ‘libary’. My teenage cousin used to pronounce twelve as ‘two-love’ when she was a child. Even if you roughly categorise an accent as of a certain place, time or culture, it is still modified from person to person.

Of course, the golden rule of accents and social etiquette is: never copy someone’s accent to their face, nor make fun of it behind their back. If they are speaking a language you don’t know, then they might be flattered at your sincere attempt at trying to copy them to their face, and even help you learn the words. But, if you try to copy their accent, when they speak the same language as you, they are likely to get offended.

Now, something like this will cut any comedian’s material by half, but it is important to do an accent with love and respect, and not contempt and ridicule. Even if you don’t admit to the latter, chances are the very way you do the accent is enough to convey it. Because, unlike learning their language, it conveys their supposed flaws in communicating with you in your own. But, and especially for a language like English, given its special history in the history of the world, there is no correct English. There are many Englishes, and yes, that’s what its called and however you pronounce it, given your background, is how it is to be pronounced. You might be called upon to do a localized, general version of it, especially in a beginner’s classroom setting, but there really is no right way of doing it.

Now, accents are particularly fascinating because of cinema and television, especially the current obsession with British accents, or the perennial favourite French. But, that’s limited to a very narrow world of a narrative, and doesn’t really apply to a British person in a real life non-British environment. Unfortunately, we have, quite narrow-mindedly, applied certain character assessments to certain cultures on the basis of accents, instead of focusing on understanding the cultures themselves. You can’t reduce a country or a community to a single adjective. It is dangerous, because these narrow assumptions become embedded in some people’s psyches, people who are uninterested in exploring the culture further. What should be a gateway to something new only ends up being a tenuous, misrepresentation of it.

But, accents can still be fun. Years ago, I got intrigued with the Scottish accent*. I tried to be good at it, at least a wee bit, but it’s hard. However, I discovered a lot of the culture too, through books, music, films etc. And there is a lot on offer, much more than is humanly possible to know, than just the way they speak English. The same applies to my natural accent, which shows in the number of you who read my essays without ever hearing me. And I appreciate that. Now, I’d like to know your adventures with and opinions on accents. Leave a comment below and I’ll talk to you soon. Goodbye!

*A Glaswegian accent.

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Writer, Blogger, Kate Bush Fanatic

35 thoughts on “Of Accents

  1. Wonderful and fascinating post! I never thought about this in the way you describe this here. I’ve had my own fascination with accents over the years-partial to English accents, but especially the Cockney accent since its not so posh. I like your warning about not doing an accent in front of someone who speaks with that particular accent. Here in New York we like to poke fun at American southern accents, or the New England accent…until you hear them turn it around on you and do the typical Brooklyn type accent. Throw in a few F-bombs and there have the quintessential New York accent! Really enjoyed this post. Maybe someday you’ll do the podcast 🙂

    1. Well, I’m not surprised since New York City seems to be the melting pot of nearly all cultures. I think it’s good, because apart from the few people who subsist on making fun of the “others”, there are people who are more culturally open and accepting. That is generally the case here too, at least in the urban places, because going from one state to another (or sometimes from one district to another) is like going from one country to another, with everything different, right from language, weather, clothing, food, art, etc.

      What sparked the “warning sign” I felt I needed to give was, really, bad accents done by a few comedians. I love their material, right until they do a pan-South Asian accent that doesn’t sound anything like anybody who lives here. Someone like Dylan Moran, on the other hand, makes fun of doing accents, or his inability to do them (his French and American ones are hilarious), all the while talking very accurately about cultural stereotypes and making fun of them in a blunt, yet inoffensive manner. His comedic styling is so sophisticated, and in a different class altogether.

      Ah, as for my American accent…I guess I should have practised more before I started recording it! I used to be quite good at accents back when I did amateur theatre, but that took many hours and days to perfect! I might try again, maybe something scripted like a poem. My spontaneous American accent sounds like I’ve inhaled a lot of helium!

      1. Its a funny thing you say, because other than the NY melting pot, there are accents that are little microcosms of neighborhoods, boroughs or states. There is a Brooklyn accent, a Bronx accent..even a New Jersey accent. Not all inhabitants have them. I remember reading that Marisa Tomei’s mom was an English teacher and when she did My Cousin Vinny she channeled the Brooklyn accent she was forbidden to use growing up there, because her mom refused to allow that! And its funny how no matter where you are-US, India, England, a couple of miles away can be an entirely different sort of accent. In a few days I’ll be in Ireland, and I’m reminded that people in say Donegal (in the north) where I will be, have told me they have a hard time with a Cork accent (in the south). I can only imagine in India what that is like with so many diverse cultures. This is why I enjoyed this post because I haven’t really thought about it in the terms you describe. I think you are probably being too hard on yourself regarding the accent. I can’t imagine the voice I heard doing Shakespeare sounding like that 🙂

      2. Ah, thank you! That is very generous of you. Accents can be strange though. I don’t remember if it was Cork, but in a movie called ‘Disco Pigs’, Cillian Murphy had an Irish accent that sounded Jamaican! Similarly, in the film ‘The Englishman Went Up A Hill But Came Down A Mountain’, which was based on a Welsh village, the natives sounded Indian! I’m not sure about the former, but the Indian accent is definitely not influenced by that Welsh accent historically. I guess one has to get more deeply into phonetics (philology is definitely very sketchy for me, including the stuff I “studied” at uni) to make sense of these connections.

        I can tell the NY accents from each other somewhat, thanks to a lot of pop culture. For example, I believe the Jersey accent emphasizes its O’s, like Debbie Harry singing “blast Awff” in the song “Rapture”.

      3. You are welcome! Of course with movies they can be really bad. I forget the title but Al Pacino was in some period piece about the American Revolution times and little effort was made to tone his accent down. There have been others too that escape me now. Funnily enough I just recently watched The Englishman…and didn’t note what you say, although Colm Meaney being Irish and playing Welsh goes without saying!

      4. It was called Revolution, and the only movie of Al Pacino’s that I couldn’t finish! I’m a huge fan, and have seen nearly every movie, even the bad ones! His accent in The Local Stigmatic was also terrible. You should watch Chinese Coffee if you haven’t already. He directed it, based in New York, about writers, and is more like a play.

        You probably couldn’t tell it sounded Indian on ‘The Englishman’ because you probably don’t get to hear an authentic Indian accent! It was a good movie. Though, and I love Hugh Grant otherwise, he was quite bad in it.

        Any favourite Al Pacino films?

      5. Yes, Revolution, that was it! Well Pacino is of course great but I fear my favorites are all pedestrian-Scent Of A Woman, Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon. I never want to see Scarface ever again! I did see Chinese Coffee, it was good! Define authentic Indian accent for me though?! I live in a neighborhood with a large Indian/Pakistan/BangladeshiMuslim population, so I hear a variety of sounds. In other parts of the city are what I assume are specific smaller groups-Sikhs for example. So I hear a lot of sounds but I don’t always know where they are specifically from

      6. The Sikh community is large, and there are no dominant accents in any of the countries you mention. I watched that movie a long time ago, so I don’t remember exactly what it sounded like. Just sounded Indian to me, and a couple of people I know, though we may be wrong! I do appreciate your being able to distinguish the various cultures and communities, instead of lumping them all together. A lot of people tend to generalize instead, which was the whole point of my essay.

        Anytime anyone tells me I’m a bit soft when it comes to movies, I tell them I watched Scarface with headphones on! I have seen it a few times, and my main complaint is it is rather long! My fave is Dog Day Afternoon, but I also love The Panic in Needle Park, Scarecrow, The Godfather 1+2, Bobby Deerfield, Author! Author!, Sea of Love, Frankie and Johnny (a great NY film), Looking for Richard, Two Bits, Carlito’s Way…I better stop. I guess you’ve seen them all, though I do recommend Two Bits, because it was a rather modest film that most people haven’t seen.

      7. Have not seen Two Bits, but Carlito’s Way was good, and I suppose I have seen most of the others on your short list too. Scarface is interminably long for me, not to mention too bloody for my tastes (I don’t do well with any of it really). I was just curious to hear your definition of the Indian accent. Reading, and watching a lot of travel programs has given me a better understanding of culture. Sometimes its the music I can identify (or at least narrow down), sometimes its the food, or sometimes a particular type of garment. The one that baffles me that I have seen on occasion in our neighborhood is a type of men’s outfit I thought was from Bhutan, and nowhere else! Must ask them if I see them walking around some day. The lumping together really bothers me. Sikhs being a fairly obvious one for a lot of Americans to misinterpret for example. To an outsider, the way they wrap their turban is so unique I don’t see how any one could confuse it, not to mention the nature of their religion. I wrote a post once where I said if you want to comment about something politically, you need to pass a basic geography and history test. If you pass it, then you can go on your rant. Sorry, I digress!

      8. No, its fine. I completely understand, and its difficult to openly talk about these things without offending someone on the internet! I hate to keep going on about the same thing again and again, but if you watch Dylan Moran’s ‘Like, Totally’ DVD (it’s on youtube, if you can’t get it on Netflix), then he makes very perceptive observations on why these attitude can happen among certain Americans. He does it in a jokey, blunt way of course, but my guess is he is right. Again, I can’t quote him here because it will be considered offensive. Just to be clear, all the Americans I’ve known personally do not exhibit any of those stereotypes, and are as open and curious as people of any other place.

      9. No I understand, and I’m sorry if I brought this topic to an area you’d rather not be out on the internet. I know you, and Dylan Moran are right on this score. I actually started watching it a few weeks ago after months of promising you I would. And I promptly fell asleep…but not because of him. Just one of those nights. Incidentally, getting back on track, but keeping with the accents-there is a great clip of Bill Bailey imitating Billy Bragg’s singing accent…with Billy standing behind him! It was brilliant! Its on YouTube as well.

      10. Ooh, I forgot And Justice for All, Angels in America, You don’t know Jack and The Merchant of Venice. He was so brilliant as Shylock. And they don’t make films like And Justice for All anymore.

      11. True on all counts. I missed my chance to see him perform it in Shakespeare In The Park (Central Park) several years ago, but a lot of people wanted to see it to be fair!

      12. Ooh, what did he perform, Richard 3? That was in the documentary ‘Looking for Richard’. I think among the greats he might have the least number of accolades, or box office success, but he has made many little known, but well scripted films. Even the films that are truly terrible have lines that he can do so well. He’s not a chameleonic actor, but a deeply affective one. You remember his lines. And he does choose many unpretentious but well-written scripts. He probably won’t be so impressive in the flesh, but on stage, and especially with that voice and those big, expressive eyes, he’d be thoroughly captivating.

      13. Sorry, I was unclear-he was doing The Merchant Of Venice. Every year they get some level of celebrity doing free shows in the park. But to get a chance of gaining admission, you have to go ridiculously early in the morning to wait in line on the day of the show. I don’t do well with stuff like that lol, no matter who is performing. Usually they have name brand actors, but the year he did it, the demand was in the stratosphere!

      14. He is that kind of a non-starry actor. He made films like Local Stigmatic and Chinese Coffee just to be shown in museums! If The Godfather hadn’t happened to him, he probably would not have been a star. It just shows in the number of small films he’s done, when all people remember (besides the big 70s movies) are his great, big rants in films like Any Given Sunday.

        Also, I can’t believe you fell asleep during a Dylan Moran stand up! He’s quite Al Pacino-ish in his delivery!

      15. I hang my head in shame at falling asleep to it, but it was a stretch where I was very stressed. I’ll get back to it. And I agree with your assessment of his acting. I could see minus The Godfather that he may not have achieved such fame in some ways. I want to see the recent one he did where he played a songwriter who wrote a letter to John Lennon only to have the reply lost for years is based on a true story about Steve Tilston, a songwriter I admire

      16. Very true, and very funny!! I like the very end about Americans talking to Irish people-my grandmother was an O’Flaherty…did you know her? I have SEEN that happen so many times for real lol

      17. Isn’t he just *bag of affectionate swear words* brilliant? He often talks about Americans in his stand up. There is one where he talks about American optimism (“I’m gonna give it a 100%…”) and how Europeans give it a 11%, and maybe a 13% if someone’s head is on fire. He says it much better of course than my synopsis here, but his material really is that GENIUS, and I don’t use that word often.

      18. Truly. I also used to be a huge fan of Eddie Izzard’s standup. He is full of great observational humor too! I think American society is ripe for those kinds of observations but I take it in the spirit it is given in. And its always true anyway!!

      19. Eddie Izzard came first of course, and Dylan clearly seems to be influenced by him. But, the Irishness and hair helps! This type of humour is my favourite. I prefer this to punchlines and jokes. Anytime you want to feel better, put on a clip of Craig Ferguson from The Late Late Show. There are tons on youtube, and he’s just so good at it.

      20. Very true on Eddie Izzard. Its not that I don’t find these things funny because invariably when I sit down to watch them I find them funny, but I seem to have less time or less desire to watch stand up comedy these days. Don’t really know why though!

  2. I’ve always wondered what other people who aren’t from the UK thought of my accent haha. I’m British but being brought up in the North of England means that it isn’t the stereotypical accent that everyone associates with England. My most recent post is about my first BookTube video and I’m really intrigued about what people think 😂🙈

    1. I think the Liverpool accent is still understandable, thanks to The Beatles, though it wasn’t so thick later on in their career. I watched series 1 of Shameless, so I can say I understand about 70% of the Manchester accent! The one I find the hardest to understand is the Newcastle accent, but I’m sure with practice it can get better. Usually, its the speed at which people say things that’s the problem, more than the way they say them. I certainly found that to be true with the French accent, when I was learning French. Which part of Northern England are you from, Melis?

      I’d love to watch your booktube video but your blog doesn’t seem to be “available” anymore. Link please!

  3. It’s been far too long since I’ve logged into my WordPress account!

    I work for a very large Canadian company, and the division I work in covers 9 states. I speak on the phone daily with people from New England and it amazes me that the Massachusetts accent is slightly different from the New Hampshire accent. My division also covers West Virginia. I can drive to West Virginia in two hours but the people down there have a totally different accent than I do.

    So it’s hard to figure out what an “American” accent is 🙂 The most generic is probably a lot like mine. I am almost tempted to try to record my voice and send it to you, so you could give me a fresh perspective on how “strong” my accent is compared to what you consider an American accent.

    I love how differently we all pronounce the same words. It’s hard to pinpoint how we are saying them differently, though I know we are known for over-pronouncing vowels around here. We refer to our company’s locations as “sites” and I speak this as one syllable while my counterpart in Indiana stretches the “I” as though she is doubling the vowel like “si-ites”. So close, but not quite the same!

    Thank you for inviting me to join this conversation, I have been trying hard to fit blogging back in my schedule, but summer can be so hectic!

    1. Oh, you’re welcome! It was you and a couple of other people who made me want to do something like this in the first place. I don’t have any generic American accent in mind. I have watched enough movies to be able to distinguish some of them, though I can’t think of what people from Ohio sound like! Can you name a famous movie that was based in Ohio? Apart from my lack of practice, the reason I probably sounded like I inhaled a lot of helium while doing my American accent for the podcast was probably because I didn’t focus on a single, movie-style, accent. I’m thinking of trying again, maybe with something scripted like a movie monologue or a poem.

      There are some things I’ve noticed with Indian English accents. While our pronunciations are typically based on the British Received Pronunciation accent, there are a few pronunciations that sound more American, like sample, example and answer (even though I pronounce answer in the British way). These things are fascinating and complicated!

      So glad to have you back, and so looking forward to your blogging again!

  4. I love accents, but I’m terrible at them. The only one my daughter says I can pull off is a really generic “Middle Eastern” accent, like the “Jacque” character in BBC’s Robin Hood series, but I think it’s still pretty bad. At present I’m trying to learn how to speak English with a Russian/Ukranian accent by studying some Ukranian words, which is so silly but so fun!

    1. I think this might be late, but you can use it if you like! If it is recorded, I’d like a link, though. And I’d love to hear how you pronounce my name, as everyone seems to pronounce it differently! Good luck, whatever you do!

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