Accents – “Where d’you come from?”

Take a minute and think about goulash.

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Goulash is a type of stew they make in Hungary and seemingly every Slavic country. In Hungarian it is written gulyás, from some root word that has to do with cattle-herders as the story goes. Thanks to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, or just close trade links, the recipe and variants became popular around Central and Eastern Europe. As it exists in numerous places, it has numerous spellings, each reflecting a different emphasis and sound.

Why am I talking about goulash? Because this is an example of a word that has travelled and taken on new expression in a different language family. Incidentally, it is also one of the meals I ate when my parents were in town recently and they inspired this post.

My parents’ visit was a lot of fun and it gave flight to my accent again. Though my dad says I haven’t got a very strong accent, and he might be right – Irvine Welsh I ain’t -it was liberating to drop the English language teacher voice. It’s my least favourite part of teaching, having to change such an intimate part of me, my voice, in order to be of most use to people who are not ready for it. Even a light Scottish accent may be a bit much for people at A2 (Pre-int) on the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (try saying that while half-cut). But I can speak freely with my family.

i would like to be able to speak the same around my fiancée. She is into it and knows how it flows and sounds already. But I code switch too often and rarely switch back. Normally, in professional environments in Scotland, I would be able to speak “properly” during the working day and switch to my rougher accent in the pub. Here, I can’t go back so easily.

See, I noticed something about the logic of language and I can show you with a self-written joke for students.

Why does the English language have articles (a, an, and the)?

shrugs

It’s because you’re foreign and we hate you

Huge laughs!

Of course, we don’t really hate second language speakers of English, but all the best jokes are surprising.

Anyway, it’s absolutely the case that English grammar is just a messed up way to show who is part of the ‘in’ crowd and who is part of the ‘out’ group. The way we form our sentences in a strict word order, the fact we have 86 prepositions (in, out, on, above, etc.), the irregular verbs, and the weird pronunciation are just some of the problems for the second language speaker.

For these reasons, it is often instantly recognisable if someone is a second language speaker. For a start, people, who have learned other languages in their own country will have pronunciation like their teacher, often a non-native speaker of English. Even if they learned from a native teacher, that will often be only an hour or two a week and most of their conversation practice will be with other non-native speakers. *

What is the effect of recognising somebody is a non-native speaker? It seems to me like it turns foreign people into ‘others’. People get a little defensive and territorial about language because they fear someone else has come to take their goulash. How can a second language speaker escape this? By putting on an accent.

By putting on an accent it looks here like I’m saying to act one. It is far better to develop one, to consciously take pronunciations you like.

For I think I can notice in my own voice and manner where I come from. I’ve got my Scottish vowel sounds, sounds which will never vanish and for that I’m thankful, but I have increasingly anglicised and americafied consonants. My life has had a ton of different people in it and because many of them were from different areas, primarily American, I have had to soften it in places.

It was that or have people repeatedly misunderstand me with varying levels of politeness in their response. It has been a struggle and it goes on as even my softer level still sometimes invites criticism. If a person misunderstands even your first syllable they will often turn off trying to understand the rest of your sentence. It sucks when people make you feel like an imbecile for speaking the language like your forebears, friends and relatives.

For a long time it made me angry when people didn’t even appear to try. But now I realise I more often have to meet them halfway. People aren’t mindreaders and I fancy if you say something in a way they’d never expect it to be said, they’ll abandon any hopes of comprehension.

Still, it was good to see my parents and speak the same language in the same old accent. It’s exhausting having to put on a neater voice and change to fit other people’s understanding.

*I’m pretty certain every language is like this. Between language families the change is greatest. The jump from English to Czech is greater (Germanic to Slavic) than the jump from Ukrainian to Czech (both Slavic). Between these families there is both a difference in words and a difference in how they fit together. Czech can be confusing as all the words seem to change their ending all the time depending on the situation and it isn’t too great a change too from asking for a cigarette to demanding their entire pack with just a small change in tone and word ending.

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