10 May 2006

The Music of Language

Like a lot of Americans – and despite being born in Texas and having lived in Minnesota – I think I mostly labored under the awful American myth that an 'accent' is something one does or does not have, that it is a deviation from some norm of plain American English. Perhaps I refused to question the myth because I truly was just a bit traumatised as a child by my own accent. I grew up in a rural mountain community in southern Colorado. Folks from my home town hate Texans; it's their raison d'etre. You wave at every car that passes with a local Colorado license plaet (VE, back in the day), you ignore the non-local Colorado plates, and you glare menacingly at the Texas plates. And thus, I desired to 'not have an accent', and over the years (coupled with never mentioning where I was born) I mostly succeeded. In college, some friends found out that I was born in Texas, or they heard my father speak, and the notion that 'my accent would come out' while talking on the phone to my parents became an oft-repeated joke. It was friendly and good-spirited joking, but I suppose it also tapped into that terrible feeling when I was 8, being the subject of Coloradon xenophobia. And maybe this is why I continued not to question the myth of the 'accent' in America (maybe it's why I'm so relentless in mastering the Minnesota accent, so that I can make fun of soemone else).

Having lived in the UK for 9 months now, I can say this about the American notion of 'accent': it's complete rubbish. Living here in Wales has provided a wonderful education in learning to hear the music of language. This post wrote itself in my head while walking home from the University yesterday, after spending 3 hours in a department meeting. I spent the meeting listening mostly to a German accent and an Irish accent. These two central voices where complemented by a choir of English accents. But an English accent is not a singular thing: the Oxfordshire accent of one colleague is quite distinct from others. And just as it's crucial to stress that I don't live in England (it's Wales, dammit!), I also don't live in a place where one hears an English accent constantly (there's no such thing as a British accent). The students and shopkeepers are mostly from Wales, and they sound nothing like my colleague from Bath. I'm now at the point that I can sort out English/Scottish/Welsh/Irish/English City. That last category has multiple sub-categories (London, Manchester, Birmingham, Newcastle), but my ear is not good enough to distinguish the subcategories. I just know the difference between an upper class English accent and my student from south London. Then there are the students from mid-Wales whose parents moved from London, but that's out of my league (and was only explained to me by my colleague).

Like any skill in reading (seeing and hearing are other variants of reading for me), learning this one has allowed me to notice things I wouldn't have noticed in the past - like the fact that 'Jeff' on Coupling is Welsh. It's never mentioned explicitly in the show, but he has a Welsh accent, and this plays into his character type.

Then, of course, there's the strangest accent of all – American! Very few folks at the University are from the States, and almost no one in town is. So it literally stops me in my tracks when I hear an American accent. It sounds so flat, so clangy; it's piercing and bounces off the hallways in a noticable manner. Above all, and this is what destroys the myth so thoroughly, it's distinctive. Nothing else sounds like an American accent.


dan said...

I've heard you talk a lot (though not in a while), and I never heard a bit of an accent. How fun to know you had to rid yourself of a whole Texas thang!

When I lived in Dublin for a few months, people often responded to my American accent favorably. However, when I heard other American accents -- the minority there, obviously -- I noted how harsh and "clangy" it sounded. It was usually an aggressiveness, actually, which was less an accent than a style, but it's tough to differentiate. I'll note, too, that mine was very much the typical, especially in class: where other students were soft spoken and needed a lot of coaxing to participate in group discussions, I typically had trouble shutting myself up.

Anyway, one friend that I met out in the clubs of Dublin was walking me home one night after some drinks, and decided to start impersonating the American accent. In his interpretation, it was a very Californian surfer-dude Keanu-Reeves-in-Bill-and-Ted's-Excellent-Adventure sort of thing, despite the fact that I spoke nothing like that (as a life-long Washington-DC-metro-area resident). When he did his routine to a female passer-by, she complimented his accurate impersonation. I tried to explain that his was one very specific dialect, but he paid no mind. It amused me that the surfer-dude was the quintessential American accent to him.

Rebecca said...

Right--much like the cockney is the 'typical British accent' when amateur Americans try it on. My Australian father peppers his Americanized language with surferisms. Not sure if that's just because I watched Bill & Teds about a million times, and can't resist a Keanu Reeves movie just to see when and how he inflects his 'whoa' this time. Full disclosure: I think it started when we as a family watched Square Pegs. Oh yes. Reachin' back into the 80s. Awesome, dude.

dan said...

On an unrelated note, I basically had sex with Keanu Reeves when I visited LA in March. He was sitting outside of a cafe and I walked right by him twice. The second time he made direct eye contact with me. Duuude!