Monday, November 15, 2010

Accentuate the Quirky

My accent is a subject of great curiosity for many of the people I meet. Inevitably, at some point during the first few sentences we exchange, they will inquire about my heritage. I've been assumed to be nationalities as diverse as Canadian or American, British or Irish, South African and Scandinavian or German.

When I was in Lopburi, the gathering of English teaching expats I joined had a brief debate about whether I was from the UK or North America. When I told them that I had a permanent home in The Land Down Under, they couldn't get over it. "Australia?! But you don't sound anything like an Australian!" Only one person in recent memory has guessed that I originate from Eastern Europe - he was from the region himself. ("People from our nations make sharp consonant sounds," he explained after noting my astonishment at this insight.)

I have noticed that a person is more likely to think I'm from the UK if they have a Northern American background, and vice versa, which perhaps says more about a tendency not to be very educated about the use of the spoken word on continents other than your own. I have described myself in various ways over time. My earlier foray into self-styled semantics represented a conscious effort to combine as many of the sounds I identified as pleasing into the one narrative. "My accent is eclectic," I proudly went back and forth between different cultural and regional norms. People just nodded bemusedly. A girl from Hong Kong told me that she thought my accent was International, but I think this is too convenient, too lacking in context.

I believe that my strongest influence is North American English, and so, if asked to identify a specific region, it's the one I usually mention first. I might say I have American overtones or undertones, or that I'm inclined towards the American accent, or that I have "an American emphasis", when I'm feeling in the mood to get in touch with my inner Bay Area Californian or Vancouverite.

Why is it that, despite only having visited Vancouver for 2 days, and living in Stanford for eight months or so, I have so much attraction to the lingual features of their brand of English?

It started with American cartoons and TV shows in my childhood, and probably blossomed around the time I started learning about American history. In particular, the culture around human rights struggles vividly captured my imagination, and still hasn't let go. I have often noted that I would love to live in San Francisco, Berkeley or Santa Cruz. However, due to the difficulty of moving to the States, I don't have much hope that I'll have a permanent home there in the near future. And even if I did, I would fit in no more than I do in Western Europe.

But that's okay.

A Lonely Planet Thorn Tree Forum participant wrote that I was not a "unique snowflake", attempting to mock me, but that's actually a wonderful metaphor for individuality - mine, and yours. Even if the difference between your accent and that of your neighbours is minimal, it's still there. No one speaks English (and the other languages you might also speak) quite the way you do. You have your own distinctive sound of voice, so enjoy that uniqueness; those things that make you you.

And if you should ever want to study and affect a multitude of different accents, go for it - you will find that most people find you memorable, original and inspiring.

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