Losing Your Accent

Accent At the dentist two Fridays ago, the assistant not only thought I was English, she also asked, prompted by my teal tights and orange polka dot blouse, “Do your office people think you dress funky?” That’s one of the best questions I’ve received in recent history, a nice end-of-week brightener. No, no one’s ever told me that I dress funky. I could wear sweats and flipflops in the office for what anyone cares.

Her remark reminded me, though, of a middle school volleyball game my mom attended. When I was on the court, a fellow student sitting next to her in the bleachers asked, “Did you know your daughter was a waver?” Almost as good as humiliating boys during the same era by asking them, “Yes or no question? Does your mother know you’re gay?” Waver, I realized is as dated a reference as emo will be in another decade. No one over 34 says emo. It makes me cringe and draw mental distance between myself and the user.

The assistant was black and Caribbean, I don’t want to automatically say Jamaican, because I don’t know that for sure. Anyone who’s ever said I have an accent (which never occurred before I moved to NYC) has had to my ears, a heavy accent. I’m trying to understand that. The more someone’s diction deviates from what I think of as standard American English, the more they think I’m the deviant.

My Italian-American landlord who lived in Gravesend and a Puerto Rican coworker from Brownsville, native New Yorkers, believed I had an accent. A Colombian Spanish tutor who learned English here also thought I had an British accent like the dental hygienist did. Do people with New York accents think everyone who lacks one sounds British? The dental assistant said, “Everyone has an accent.” I get her point, but we do have something called newscaster English and most characters on TV do not have what I would call accents.

This also makes me wonder about American (i.e. not New York) ears. A sentence spoken by someone Irish, Scottish, Australian, South African one after another would sound different, but I think most Americans hearing one accent alone wouldn’t be able to identify the country. It all sounds “English.” To me, American and Canadian (only marginally different for the most part) English sounds very different (obviously neutral to my ear) from all of those above like it developed on a separate path. But that’s pretty self-centric. I’m wondering if an Australian thinks an American accent is distinguishable from South African or if a South African can hear the difference from Canadian and Irish English?

This also gets at a question I’ve never had answered sufficiently (also, what if you were Mexican and living in Texas when it became a state—were you now an American citizen?) but how did Americans get their accent? In other words, at one point a bunch of British people, pilgrims, whoever, came here and spoke one way and not the way we presently speak. I imagine it’s a case of mixing with French, Germans, etc. for centuries.

I know I’ve had Australian and English readers over the years. If you’re still around, do let me know if you lump all other English speakers together and if the American/Canadian accent only sounds flat to North Americans?

10 thoughts on “Losing Your Accent

  1. I’ll throw an opinion out there from our household – English speakers have pretty easy to spot accents except for the dreaded American/Canadian or Australian/New Zealand confusion. Your brother-in-law, as a native Englander, says he’s only certain someone is American, not Canadian, if they have a strong regional accent.
    But Americans always ask him if he’s Australian because they can’t fathom English people don’t all sound like Hugh Grant.
    Then again, when I lived in England I was asked what part of Wales I was from by two Welshmen.
    I don’t feel like I’m helping you establish clarity.

  2. Melissa: That is not helpful! I’ve never come to terms with the phrase brother-in-law (so official) and always forget that I actually have one. What you might ask him is if an Australian, South African and American accent all sound similar or if the American one is different from the other two. I’m guessing the American one only seems different to me because it seems normal/standard.

    Rick: Vincent Price brings up a whole other issue, which is pre-1950s American acting accents. Why did they have that British affectation?

    There was a sci-fi show maybe five years ago called Threshold and the character played by Peter Dinklage, the indie little person actor, was an expert in micro-accents. That amused for some reason…and then it was canceled.

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