Due to recent events, I have a new boss*. He seems a nice enough fellow, and I’m sure I’ll get to know him well over the coming weeks. Here’s an interesting thing about him: He has an accent. An English accent.
*I should mention that events of the last week have led to a fair bit of reflection. One thing that’s come to mind is that my old boss- the guy to whom I reported for 8 years- was really a great boss. Good bosses are like money: having one doesn’t guarantee happiness, but lack of one almost certainly ensures unhappiness. OK, that right there is probably the most insightful thing I’ve ever written.
Oh, I know what you’re thinking: “Everybody has an accent. He has an English accent, and you have an American accent.” And rationally, I know this is the case. But intuitively, I know that he has an accent and I’m talking Regular. And this, right here, is to me the most fascinating thing about accents: that they’re one of the clearest, most glaringly obvious examples of the difference between knowing something rationally vs. knowing it intuitively. Admit it- at least once in your life, when you’ve been listening to someone speaking with a heavy accent, you’ve thought, “Can’t you just talk Regular?” I mean, doesn’t it seem that if people just relaxed and spoke normally, they’d speak English the same, “normal” way you do?
Oh sure, this sounds silly. But consider another example. Back in September, when Twin A and I were hiking in the Henry Mountains, I blogged about the nature of self, and how rationally, from a purely physical, rational, materialist perspective, there is no such thing as a lifelong immutable “self.” But intuitively, we all know that we’re the same “self” we were yesterday, last year, and 20 years ago. Accents are like Self.
Side Note: There are of course countless other examples in everyday life I could have used to highlight this cognitive disconnect, such as fear of flying, peoples views on race, and the belief that ice shards somehow belong in a martini*. But I like these 2 because one- Accents- is easy to get your head around, while the other- Self- is a bit of a mind-bender.
*Sorry, Eric. Could not resist.
It struck me this week, BTW, that the amount of time I worked for my now-acquired employer- 8 years- was almost certainly long enough for a pretty thorough “self-refresh.” So the “me” who started working there wasn’t the guy who got the payout last week. Seems somehow unfair…
Accents are fascinating for so many reasons. If you learn just a bit of a foreign language, you’ll quickly become aware of them. Most of us who speak a little Spanish know the difference between the Castilian “c” or “z” and the Latin American pronunciation, and how “ll” sounds like a ”y” in Mexico, but a “j” in Argentina. More confusing is how much vocabulary varies between various Spanish-speaking countries. The “truck vs. lorry” thing happens like crazy in Spanish. Most of us learned that peanutbutter is crema de cacahuate in Spanish class, but in more countries it seems to be maneca de mani (“butter of peanut”), and confusingly, crema de mani (“cream of peanut”) in Costa Rica.
My favorite Spanish vocabulary-variation example- and one near to my heart- is the word for non-identical twins. (Pic left: don’t you love it when you get the jumbo eggs and crack one open and it’s a 2-for-1?) The word for “twins” in Spanish we learned in class is gemelos, but like so many Spanish words, its meaning is more specific than the English equivalent. Gemelos is the word for identical twins, but the word for non-identical twins is different in practically every country. In Mexico it’s cuates. In Columbia and Venezuela it’s morochos, and in Spain it’s mellizos. In Cuba it’s jimaguas and in Costa Rica, so far as I can tell, well, there is no word*.
*Quick Costa Rica twin story: When we were visiting last year, we hired guides a few times. Sometimes guides would give a discount for kids, sometimes not. In Monteverde our guide refused to discount prices for kids, but he had a long-standing policy that twins were 2 for the price of 1. I was glad for the discount, so I shut up and paid, but part of me was just itching to say, “You know that they’re actually two different people, right?” This reminds me- someday I need to do a post on all the wacky things people say about twins.
I‘m fascinated by accents and dialects of Spanish because the history of that language is so interesting. Spanish and Italian were the same language- Vulgar Latin- just 2,000 years ago, but today they’re 2 separate tongues. Spanish and Portuguese diverged more recently, and while they’re still 2 distinct languages, speakers of one can often understand much of what a speaker of the other is saying. And now regional accents are starting to diversify into dialects yet again. The evolution of language is continuous and fascinating.
It’s interesting to think that Americans and Englishmen presumably spoke English the same way just 400 years ago, if not more recently. And given modern travel, communications and media over the last 60-80 years or so, most of that accent-gap developed over somewhere around just 300 years. If modern technology and travel had never come about, how long would it have taken for the 2 to become mutually unintelligible?
My new boss has a non-rhotic accent. Linguists define accents in many different ways; one of the easiest to distinguish is rhotic vs. non-rhotic. A rhotic accent is one in which the letter “r” is pronounced when it is not followed by a vowel, such as the “r” in “park.” I pronounce it; my boss doesn’t. Most American and Canadian* accents are rhotic. In addition to the various “English” accents, non-rhotic accents also exist here in the US, the 2 best examples being the various Southern accents, and- dear to my heart- the Boston accent. If you’re skeptical, think of how the word “farther” is pronounced the 3 accents- English, Southern and Boston. In all 3 it sounds pretty much the same as “father.”
*Canadian non-rhotic accents can be found in the Maritime provinces.
Tangent: I grew up 12 miles outside of Boston. When people learn where I’m from, a not-uncommon question is: When did you lose your accent? Answer: I never had one. What most outsiders don’t get about the classic Boston accent is that there’s somewhat of a class-related distribution to it. In middle-to lower-class suburbs, such as Medford, Dedham or Braintree*, practically everyone has it. In upper middle-class suburbs, such as Lexington, Lincoln or Winchester, far fewer people have it. If you walk through a local rich-kids private high school, like Belmont Hill, I suspect it’s pretty uncommon.
*In fairness, these towns have all dramatically gentrified in the last 30 or so years. But when I grew up in the area in the 1970’s, they were definitely middle-to-lower class.
When I explain this to people, they frequently respond, “But what about the Kennedys?” The Kennedys are a weird anomaly. Nobody talks like them. Their accent, though sort of Boston, also has a strange, pseudo-patrician lilt vaguely reminiscent of George Plimpton or William F. Buckley. Speaking of which- where did those guys get their accents? Did anyone really ever talk like that besides them and the Howells on Gilligan’s Island?
Nested Tangent: I can however speak with a Boston accent. It’s easy. Drop your “r”s when they’re not followed by a vowel. When making an “r” sound, don’t let the back of your tongue recoil toward the back of your mouth- this’ll keep your “r”s from coming out to “hard”. And when making vowel sounds, don’t open the back of your mouth so much. (Optionally, you can also drop the final “g” off present progressive verbs and adjectives ending in “ing”. Liberal use of the “F” word also helps.)
I am great at mimicking accents. I sometimes suspect that the only reason Awesome Wife has stuck with me for so long is that I can reliably make her laugh with my cockney accent. For the Trifecta, my Indian accent is a sure crowd-pleaser. A few years back my company hired a German salesguy- let’s call him “Hans”- of whom I sometimes did impressions when relating a story. One of my coworkers* once said, “You do Hans better than Hans!”
*”Lance”, the CML leukemia guy. BTW, he is doing awesome. I will do an update post soon.
One of the most interesting things about accents is how detecting one on a speaker immediately colors our perception of them. I’ve known countless bright Southerners, and have never had any reason to suspect that Southerners were any less smart than Northerners. But when I hear someone speak for the first time and they do so with a Southern accent, a little teeny part of my brain thinks, “Hick.” It’s not accurate (much less fair.) Why do I think it?
On the other end of the spectrum, when we hear an upper-class (not a Monty Python-cockney) English accent, we tend to automatically regard the speaker as smart. Why? Is it because we watched Masterpiece Theater during our formative years? Why? Pick up a tabloid on the streets of London, and you’ll quickly be disabused of the notion that the English are any smarter than us. But something about that accent just sounds so darn… educated.
I’m always curious as to how my accent sounds to other English speakers. I sometimes wonder if I sound to an Englishman as a Southerner sounds to me. Or maybe my accent sounds sort of Midwestern and flat- like an Ohio or Wisconsin accent, but stronger.
Tangent: 2 more things about English accents. First, I’ve known a number of ex-pat Brits- including my new boss- who’ve been very successful in American sales careers. Does the accent give them an edge in sales? Does it improve their credibility by just a teeny bit, giving them- in the long run- a slight statistical advantage here over an otherwise similarly skilled, similarly charismatic, similarly motivated, but American-accented salesguy?
I should mention that if true, this accent-effect quite likely worked to the advantage of my paternal grandfather, an ex-pat Englishman who emigrated to the US in the 30’s and worked his way up to the Vice President level at US Steel, back when that meant eating in an executive dining room and having a company limo drive you to work. By the time I knew/remembered him, he’d practically lost his English accent, and spoke pretty much as an American. Interestingly my grandmother, who emigrated at the same time, kept her accent throughout her life, as did my maternal grandfather, who emigrated from Cyprus at age 20 and retained a thick Greek accent* until his death at age 95.
*More specifically, a Greek-Cypriot accent. Long before I spoke Spanish, I spoke a little (and I mean a little) Greek. When I traveled to Cyprus in the mid-80’s, I was surprised to hear that the word for “and”,- “keh”(kappa alpha iota)- was pronounced “jeh.” My maternal grandfather’s coming-of-age/emigration story BTW is totally awesome, and includes working in a bakery as a young boy and sleeping on sacks of flour, sneaking across enemy lines in WWI armed with only a knife to kill and steal goats, and eventually, together with his fellow immigrant partners, throwing piles of money up in the air in the basement of their NYC restaurant. Someday I will work it into an Awesome Tangent. Τ' αγαπώ, Παππού.
The other thing about English accents is that when we Americans hear them, our gay-dar is largely disabled.
Before I go any further, this isn’t intended as a slur of any kind on anyone’s preference: I’m absolutely pro-gay rights, including marriage and military service*.
*Really, it’s 2010. If you still honestly, truly believe that gays “recruit” new members, that people get converted to “gay-ness”, or that 2 guys exchanging rings and kissing in a church has anything at all to do with the health or soundness of your marriage, then really, it’s time to get a clue.
In fact, as I so often do when blogging about matters outside my areas of expertise*, I consulted with a subject matter expert- let’s call him “Coworker Karl”- who possesses excellent qualifications in this area, in that he is, in fact, gay.
*Which is- with the exception of biking , work-related tangents and martinis- uh, pretty much everything in this blog.
Now, it may not be an “accent”, but there exists a stereotypical gay male “inflection” when speaking, a sort of clipped, extra-precise, almost feminine way of speaking. And though it’s a stereotype, it’s often* true. It’s a shame that the issue of homosexuality is so politically charged for many reasons, but one of them is that it’s lead to an almost politically correct “ignoring” of this inflection of speech, and that’s a shame. Because to the extent that it does exist, it is absolutely fascinating. Where does it come from? Is it obtained from conversing with other gay men (doubtful)? Or is it somehow related to some other factors in the brain which direct or influence sexual preference? Isn’t it an interesting question**?
*My use of “often” means just that. Not overwhelmingly, commonly or even usually. And certainly some number of men who speak with this inflection are not gay. (I think.)
**I should add that it’s a total stumper for Coworker-Karl as well. We discussed it at length, and he’s as clueless as I am. As an aside, Coworker Karl finds SGSI (Stereotypical Gay Speech Inflection) very unappealing in a prospective partner, and this lead to further discussion, and the interesting observation that it seems as though there’s a much greater variance in the range of “types” of men that gay men find attractive when compared to the range of “types” of women that straight men find attractive. In other words, I can pretty reliably pick a photo of a woman- say Selma Hayek- and be pretty certain that if I show the photo to a random grouping of straight men, at least 80% of them will agree she’s attractive. But, according to Coworker Karl, the same would not necessarily be true with a photo of a man among a random grouping of gay men; he feels that “type-preference” among gay men varies more widely. You know, I don’t really know where this post is headed, but it is just chock-full of interesting footnotes and tangents.
But back to the point (and I do have one)- when we hear an English (non-cockney) accent, our sonic gay-dar is completely disabled. Because to an American ear, all Englishmen- and forgive me, this is a terrible, awful generalization, but damnit it’s true- sound just a little teeny bit gay. Why is that?
Side Note: “Sonic Gay-dar.” I’m pretty sure that’s the best term I’ve ever came up with- even better than “Utard*.” If I am remembered for one thing in this blog, I want it to be “Sonic Gay-dar.” And if I ever start a band, that’s what I’m naming it.
*And yes, I am telling you, I invented that term back in the 90’s. Gayle Ruzicka was my inspiration.
**I of course will be the frontman. I’ll sing (badly) and play rhythm-ukulele.
Bonus Tangent: The other Accent Mystery that drives me crazy is the origin of the modern Israeli accent. If you’ve known, sold to, or worked with Israelis, you know that they have a distinct, recognizable accent. Where did that come from? (Pic right = female member of Israeli Defense Force. I was googling for pics of “Israel” and came across it. I find it disturbingly appealing in a vaguely Stratfor/Ian Fleming kind of way. OK I’m way over-sharing.) Hebrew was a pretty much a dead language until the late 1800’s, and modern Israel is populated with the descendant of Jews from many countries. Does the accent have pan-Eastern European origins, reflecting the origins of many immigrants? Or was it originally a Russian accent brought to Palestine by the mainly Russian Jewish settlers of the first 3 aliyahs*, and later imparted to the later waves of immigrants from other European countries?
*Aliyah = wave of Jewish emigration to Palestine/Israel. Between 1882 and the present there have been between 5 and 13 distinct aliyahs, depending on who’s counting. Chock-full, I tell you, chock-full!
Here’s yet another interesting thing about accents and dialects: birds have them*. Here’s a quick example from my back yard, involving a bird we’ve looked at before- the White-Crowned Sparrow.
*With birds, ornithologists usually seem to call them “dialects.” And while nobody’s suggesting that any birds have anything like a full-blown human language, the principle of the analogy makes sense: bird songs appear to vary regionally, eventually becoming mutually unrecognizable as populations diverge, separate and eventually speciate.
About a week ago, 3(?) White-Crowned Sparrows showed up at my feeder- the first time I’ve noticed them this season. Male WC Sparrows have standard songs they sing to establish territories and attract females. These songs are learned not from their fathers, but from other male birds in there area- or, in other words, the guys in the ‘hood.
Now these songs vary a bit from area to area, or in other words, the male WC Sparrows sing their songs in their local “dialect.” But the really cool thing is this: male WC Sparrows raised where two areas/dialect overlap actually grow up “bilingual” and can sing songs in either dialect.
Tangent: When I blogged about WC Sparrows last year, I mentioned that they almost always chase away Dark-Eyed Juncos (which we also looked at last year.) Well, right around New Year’s a flock of DE Juncos established themselves around my feeder. For a week, they were all over the place- perched on the feeders, on nearby branches and hopping about on the snow-covered ground below. Then about a week later other birds started appearing- Finches, House Sparrows, Siskins and the WC Sparrows, and almost on cue, the DE Juncos were immediately relegated to the ground only, where they’re picking up spilled seeds from the feeders. So my question is this- is it simply coincidence, or are the other birds- and specifically the WC Sparrows- somehow following the DE Juncos?
I don’t know, but I suspect this may be some aspect of a common bird behavior known as mixed species flocking, which is believed to provide feeding and protection benefits for the various species involved, and to which I plan to return in a future bird-post.
Accents sometimes change in adults, as with my paternal grandfather, but not always, and usually only after many years. If you want to speak another language accent-free, your absolute best shot is to learn it before age 10 or 11*. So far the Trifecta, born and raised in Utah, speak for the most part as we do. But not entirely.
*Which in turn is a way, way fascinating topic, but one which I’ll save for another post.
I’ve heard that Utah is considered, along with Arizona and Indiana, to be accent free (which is allegedly why they’re popular locations for call-centers) but those of us who’ve lived here a while know that there is in fact a Utah accent. It’s difficult to describe. There are a few words that are clearly pronounced differently (“measure” is pronounced “MAY-zhure”) but mostly it’s something you just have to hear, and you don’t hear it right away, but only after 15 or 20 seconds of steady speech.
On characteristic of the Utah accent is a clear, long “e” pronunciation of the first “e” in words starting with “de-” or “be-”, such “decide”, “beside” or “depend.” Utahns pronounce the first “e” as a clear long “E”, like “dee-PEND.” Awesome Wife and I pronounce the first “e” in these words sort of halfway between a schwa and a short “I”, as do most Northeasterners.
The Trifecta pronounces them long, like Utahns. There are other differences as well; they pronounce the “t” in “often”, which neither AW nor I do.
The last thing I’ll mention about accents is how they’re like smells. When you hear one you haven’t heard in a while, the sound can take you back to the time and place where you knew it, just like the scent of a forest, meal or perfume.
To be truthful, I was a bit disdainful of Boston accents when I lived there. But now that I’ve been away for 20 years, I- strangely- love hearing them. When I return to the Boston area nowadays and hear people chatting on the street, or even when I phone a company in Boston and hear it in the greeting of a receptionist, a little voice in my head shouts, “Home!”, and my heart lifts just a teeny bit.
Note: Special thanks to Coworker Karl, who is endlessly helpful, patient, good-natured and an absolute pleasure to work with.