Monday, 16 August 2010

Floating accent, part the first


Scientists – yes, Scientists good and true – conclude Floating Accent Syndrome exists!

I first read about floating accent syndrome in one of Dave Gorman’s books (I have an imperfect memory on this, but I think it was the googlewhack one). Gorman claims to have the tendency of gravitating his accent to align with the person to whom he is speaking, completely accidentally and unconsciously. I think he also mentions it as an especial outcome of being from the Midlands, where we don’t really have much of a distinguishable accent ourselves. Well, Dave Gorman is a wise man, and now Scientists – Scientists! mark you – have confirmed it.

These Scientists say as humans we are likely to imitate those with whom we’re in conversation. It’s an empathetic reflex. I want you to feel I am familiar, so I will try to sound a bit like you and mirror your speech patterns and inflection and even the speed at which you talk.

I’ve said it before; if you live anywhere other than where you were born for any length of time, you probably should start to get a bit of a floating accent. (That is mostly because I have the world’s worst case of it*). Our surroundings should change us. We are supposed to respond and relate to what’s around us.

Unfortunately, in practice, this just makes us sound massively inauthentic. It appears we’re trying to be something we’re not.

It’s funny, because when you're learning a foreign language, mimicking is demonstrably the right way to do it. That’s how you learn it. My French sounds determinedly Québécois. I learnt French in school, but I learnt to use French in Canada. If you use your own accent when operating in a foreign language, you simply sound like someone who doesn’t care enough to try very hard.

My accent these days is an unlovely tattercoat stitched from the shreds of all the places in which I’ve lived. By someone who doesn’t entirely know how to sew. And who doesn’t have time to do much more than vaguely mackle things together relying quite heavily on iron-on hem tape and baling twine. Some things are quite ingrained: I haven’t ever got rid of my glottal stops (Ga’wick airpor’) or my non-rhotic intrusive R (Canada-r-and Australia-r-and New Zealand). Vowels are much less unequivocally nailed down.

The really irritating thing about my floating accent is that sometimes it will float in the opposite direction. Sometimes, with people posher than me – or with Australians/Kiwis – I will hear my vowels rounding out to match theirs (although I’ve never gone as far as grarss or barth). At other times, though, it will send me in the complete opposite direction and suddenly I’m channelling my colliery heritage and asking where ‘ast tha bin since I saw thee last? At what point wanting to belong becomes losing your authenticity, I don’t know.

My question for the Scientists, though, is this: who is mimicking whom? Because if I am trying to sound like you, aren’t you also trying to sound like me? Down what sort of wormhole is that going to end? are we ever going to get out?

*except maybe for Dave Gorman.


A. Hiscock said...

There's a name for it! I am delighted by this, because I do it, too.

Anonymous said...

Over here I do find myself pronouncing a range of English words the Sri Lankan English way (and, yes, that is a language in its own right) as it seems to make me easier to understand by the locals. Getting a three-wheeler to take me to work is resoundingly more successful when I use a hard "r" in my speech.

I generally have "an English language teaching CD" accent, except after a couple of glasses of wine when my Leiceter roots creep in!


Holly said...

I was JUST thinking about this this morning. But not everyone does it equally. Is this because some people are more suggestible than others, or because some people are simply better at imitating than others?

When I came back from Germany I was speaking English like my Finnish exchange student friend, because she was the only one I spoke English with. It was hilarious and wonderful.

Amber said...

Owldaughter, do you do it in French too? My French accent stays much the same, because it's learnt. I'm not proficient enough to alter it depending on who I'm talking to.

G, hey up me duck! I find it's strongest/ least decipherable when I am really tired.

Holly, you are wise. I suppose it depends on how you think of yourself, negative (too suggestible) or positive (good at accents - or good at relationships maybe?)