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The British Obsession With Accent

 

In a café, after a West End matinée.  My friend has just introduced me to an acquaintance of hers, then left us alone to go and order tea.  “So what did you think of the show?” he asks.

I reply, “Well, I enjoyed the number with –”

“Where are you from?”

I am interrupted mid-sentence.  I say nothing, and glare.   

“Where are you from?” Almost an order.

“It’s a long story,” I say, coldly.

 

You would think he would take the hint and back off.

 

“What do you do?” His tone becomes insistent, almost frantic.  Like a man lost at sea, desperate to clutch at something, or he will drown.

I can see he will not even pretend to be interested in what I have to say about the show.  “I’m a translator,” I say.

A glimmer of hope flashes across his face.  “Which languages?”

I sigh with as loud a pectoral rasp as I can produce.  “Italian, French and Russian – into English.”

His face relaxes.   His index finger taps on a list in the air.  “Ah, so you’re... (sotto voce) Italian... French... Russian.”

Thanks be!  He is now safely clinging to a bouy.  Because here, until you are able to pigeon-hole someone, you are drifting in dangerous waters.

 

Like so many others, this man has made the easy assumption that, just because I speak these languages, then I must automatically come from those countries.  Actually, by blood, I am not Italian, French or Russian.  But I did not want to play on the man’s vulnerability, and confuse him further.  What I wanted to tell him, was that I am mostly English, with an authentic English temper spiked with inborn sarcasm and – since I was not brought up in England and trained to keep it in check – if provoked, it flies out, unrestrained, in its purest, most unadulterated, caustic form.  The kind that would make John Donne, Sir Francis Bacon and many characters played by Maggie Smith cheer.

 

However, one thing I was taught, is that sarcasm is like fencing.  You do not engage with someone who cannot keep up with you... 

 

We know from George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion that, in England, what places you, gives you your social position, and puts you into the correct trial dock, is your accent.  Even now, your accent is what influences people’s behaviour towards you.  Is it regional? Is it cut glass? Or – worst of all – is it slightly foreign? 

 

It seems the British are incapable of having a conversation until they have placed your accent.  Until they can do so, panic – or disapproval – reigns supreme.  It is as though what you are saying cannot be heard or mentally processed until the exact origin of the speaker is determined.  As though they cannot decide whether to believe you or not until they know where you come from.  You can parry as much as you like; they will not stop until they have gained access to your very D.N.A...

 

Many years ago, I was at a luncheon in a Cambridge College.  I was having a seemingly anodyne conversation with one of the Fellows about the acoustics in an opera house.  I remarked that the sound naturally rose, so the best way to judge a singer’s voice, was to sit in the gods.

“Do you have scientific proof for that?” asked the Fellow.

“No.  I’m not a scientist.  Next time you’re at the opera, sit in the gods, and judge for yourself.”

“You weren’t born in this country, were you?”

 

There it was, slam bang below the belt.  As though the fact I might not have been born in this country suddenly invalidated my opinion about music.  

 

“How is that relevant to the conversation we were just having?” I asked.

“Well, I’m making it relevant because it’s interesting.”

“Well, it’s not interesting for me.”

 

Eventually, he apologised.  

 

Interesting? Then go the British Library and pore over a manuscript.  That would be far more interesting. 

 

Another thing which puzzles me.  What importance can the place of your birth possibly have, except for governments in deciding whether or not to grant you citizenship? What difference does it make where I was born? The place of birth does not have any bearing on my blood heritage.  If I had been born on a boat in the midst of an ocean, would that make me a fish? Personally, I was born in one country but my parents came from other parts of the world. So which is my country? I am half-English, I love England and feel English – until someone rudely interrupts me mid-sentence to ask where I am from.  There are times when I truly wish some of the British advocacy for political correctness, politeness and inclusiveness would be extended to me. 

 

A few weeks ago, once again, I was bulldozered by a lady in the shop, while I was making an observation about the weather.  She thought herself very perceptive in declaring me French.  I enlightened her by saying that, although I had received a French education, and had lived in France for six years, I was not, in fact, French.  I normally wait what I consider a polite amount of time before I ask strangers where they come from and, even then, I prefer to wait until the conversation touches upon the subject of languages, travel or geography before I enquire.  This time, I made an exception.  “Oh, I’m English!” she retorted with a noticeable expression of outrage.  “It’s an upper-class English accent.  Queen’s English.  Now if you were English, you would know I sound aristocratic.”

 

She brought back to mind Saint Bonaventure’s quotation, "Exemplum de simia, quae, quando plus ascendit, plus apparent posteriora eius" or Sir Francis Bacon’s translation thereof, “He doth like the ape, that the higher he clymbes the more he shows his ars.”  

 

I nearly replied that it was rotten luck her aristocratic family had clearly been too impoverished to purchase her a copy of Debrett’s Etiquette and Modern Manners but, as I said, one thing I was taught, is that sarcasm is like fencing...

 

I find it rather distressing, that given our national pride in subtlety, most people do not seem to take a subtle hint that you are trying to evade the question.  Try and change the subject, and suddenly, they all turn into prosecutors.

 

Where are you from?

Well, it’s a long story...

Well, I shan’t bore you...

Oh, I don’t really like to talk about it...

For all your attempts gently to elude them, they push ahead.  However, try telling them to “mind their business”, and you are the one perceived as rude.

 

I have been asked if I am French, Dutch, Irish, German, Swedish, Spanish or Irish.  The most frequent choice, though, is probably South African – even though I have never ever been to South Africa. 

 

Yes, I find it tedious to keep trying to explain to people where I come from, since I am like the pattern on Harlequin’s dress, and so unable to give a straightforward answer.  I have the non-descript accent of one who was exposed to several languages from birth.  However, I am not averse to satisfying their curiosity, when they phrase the questions with  some delicacy, as genuine, enthusiastic interest, and do not cross-examine me as though sitting in judgement of me.

 

A couple of months ago, I was at a drinks do with a friend.  We struck up a conversation with a man.  He happened to be a barrister.  We spoke for several minutes – about the Royal Opera House production of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, about the music of Hildegard of Bingen, then about travelling and local customs.  Then he cocked his head and smiled.  “May I assume you’re not from London..?” he said, his tone politely unobtrusive, suggesting his curiosity was prompted by my enjoyable contribution to our earlier conversation, rather than suspicion on his part.   

 

I was happy to tell him my whole story.

And if you really want to hear my accent, listen to this podcast: http://redroom.com/member/katherine-gregor/media/audio/crows

 

Scribe  Doll

 

Comments
14 Comment count
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This is delightful!

This is delightful!

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Thank you very much! Just

Thank you very much! Just letting off steam, really.

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:-)

I enjoyed your post about crows (and your pretty accent) as well as the content of this post. I've been told (by my compatriots in the continental U.S.A.) that I have an accent and when I complained of it to my dad (who was raised in Utah, U.S.A.) he just smiled and said, "Everybody has an accent."  He also said that he preferred (in terms of American accents, obviously) the West Coast accent to the East Coast one because the latter was a pseudo-British one and that the West Coast one was more a blend of all accents. (I don't know where he got this idea.) Personally, I find all kinds of accent fascinating and it's difficult for me to say which one is my preferred accent. I've had friends from different parts of the world up and down the social ladder and learned long ago not to pay attention to accents as long as I can understand what they're saying. As for the crows, I like their caws, maybe because of a Japanese nursery song the lyrics of which say that the mother crow caws at sunset thinking of its seven adorable fledglings waiting in the nest for her to return. The Birds is my favorite Hitchcock film, by the way.

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Thank you, Kim.  Your father

Thank you, Kim.  Your father is right to say that everyone has an accent.  In England, though, I absolutely hate being quizzed in what I feel is a judgemental manner.  I tend to think that if I've taught English as a Foreign Language at prestigious schools, then my accent can't be that bad! Still, I harbour the dream – when I have sufficient funds – to take elocution lessons, to get rid of my accent once and for all – so they all shut up about it, and I can blend in.  Perhaps I do have a chip on my shoulder, but...

I am glad you liked the crows piece.  There are two crows hopping on the snow outside my window, as I write this.

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Love the smooth sound of your

Love the smooth sound of your voice, Katherine. Not even sure I'd venture a guess as to where you were born and raised by your accent. I'd be too busy listening to what you had to say.

Don't care for the sound of crows, though. I think seeing The Birds at an early age did me in for crows. 

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Thank you kindly, Jodi.

Thank you kindly, Jodi.  Interesting that you and Kim both mention Hitchcock's The Birds.  I find the film very scary.  

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I understand what you are

I understand what you are saying here, Katherine. I am often asked where I am from because my accent does not reveal my origins. It tends to confound some people and derail their desire to pigeon hole me into a neat category!

Because of this I tend to say that I am from everywhere, which is pretty much how I see it.

I love The Birds. I was lucky to visit Bodega Bay. Brillliant film. mx

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And does replying "I'm from

And does replying "I'm from everywhere" put an end to the questioning?

Nah, don't like The Birds.  

Thank you very much for comenting.  Let us all folks-with-unplaceable-accents unite!

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Why does it seem we're always

Why does it seem we're always judged on the "come withs." Those things we come with, dark hair, crooked teeth, our accent and big nose, the place we were born. Instead of being judged by the things we work so hard at, and control and can change and are proud of.

That's what makes relationships like the ones you have on Redroom, so valuable, because we know each other for our writing and our stories, our words and those things that are meaningful to us.

I loved Saint Bonaventure's quote!

 

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You're ao right about the

You're ao right about the "come withs" ! 

Thank you for your comment.

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Accents and voices

You have a lovely accent and voice, and to me crows are often portrayed as harbingers, messengers that proclaim that something is coming, because they not only see from high above, they speak what they see. I have two young children and we recently pulled out a couple of DVDs that we hadn't watched in a while, The Secret of Kells, and Bambi. Crows always herald a visitor in these animated films, albeit a harmful one.

As for accents, in England isn't there a tie to class? And therefore, the strain to place an accent is an effort to put you in your proper place in society. An old world kind of thing -- in the U.S. it's more about appearance perhaps, with wealth being the thing worshipped, not lineage. I have to say that the story of the woman who freaked out and told you that her accent betrayed aristocratic origin was pretty funny, and in the U.S., that would have been viewed as pathetic if it weren't backed up with a mansion and a fancy car.

If I were you I'd be very tempted to say something absurd when someone asks where I am from and you sense that it is a class thing. Like, with the most honest tone I could invoke, "I'm from the tree in your backyard." But I guess that would torpedo the conversation, and maybe you are better just saying "You know what, I left something on the stove! I'll be right back!" and never return... 

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Thank you for making me

Thank you for making me laugh!  Actually, I do sometimes reply that I come from a long line of East Anglian pixies, or from the invisible side of the Moon and was born in a castle made of the finest Venetian crystal... They just insist, anyway!

Yes, in the UK, it's a class thing, although – these days – this has taken a rather peculiar turn.  Recently, a famous broadcaster, who had a natural regional accent but who took lessons to acquire what used to be called a "BBC accent" has been criticised for sounding "too posh".  

They really do go from one extreme to the other...

Thank you so much for your kind comment.  

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Preconceptions

Katherine,

Captivating anecdotal gems made even more so with your lively language ("bulldozered" by a lady indeed!).

What an amusing abundance of stereotypes and preconceptions  commonly associated with ethnicity and language you have stirred up in just a few paragraphs!  Languages like classical Greek and French notable for highlighting vowels and intonational variety are innately more musical or mellifluous in contrast to languages like German with emphasis on more explosive consonant and gutteral sounds.  But surely  cultural conditioning also influences these judgments of and association with  sounds.

You'll remember and appreciate  the inimitable lines from MY FAIR LADY that humorously sum up our preoccuptions and prejudices concerning languages and ethnicities, ""The French don't care so much what they do as long as they pronounce it correctly." 

Brenden

P.S.   I am similarly piqued (if I sensed your irritation correctly)  by strangers who, before establishing any rapport or connection with me, "rapid fire" personal inquiries  ("by indirection seek direction out"). 

 

 

 

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Thank you for your kind

Thank you for your kind comments.  I appreciate them.