Monday, January 7, 2008

Where did you say you're from?

EcoGeoFemme has an interesting post this week about accents. Like some of the commenters over there, I tend to "hear" what I'm reading in my own accent. Which is a weird messed-up 57 varieties phenomenon.

No-one can ever guess where I'm from. A lot of Brits (and even the occasional Irish person) will guess that I'm Irish. The majority of Canadians will guess at Australian; interestingly enough, I've had Australian and New Zealander friends here tell me that they're often identified as Brits.

(North Americans definitely seem to have less of an ear for different accents than in Britain, where the locals of two towns 30 miles apart can sound completely different. I once had friends from Edinburgh and Southern England visit me at the same time, and lots of Canadians couldn't tell the difference between the three of us. Same thing when my Kiwi friend still lived here - more than one person thought we sounded the same ("Australian?"). I'm also constantly astounded by the North American inability to hear the difference between two words, such as ferry and fairy, that sound completely different to me. "You were stranded in Nanaimo for 3 hours thanks to the bloody fairies?").

I've moved around quite a bit, and everywhere I go I tend to pick up local words and phrases quite quickly. I think this habit dates back to when I first started primary school with a different accent to everyone else (see below), which was obviously noticed and commented on, kids being kids and all. Rapid adaptation was in my best interests! Once those words are in my vocabulary, I tend to pronounce them with a wee bit of the local accent. And so my hybrid monstrosity is born.

So. Here's my linguistic pedigree. I was broad Geordie* until I was about 5, when we moved to York. York has a very distinctive accent of its own, including a local version of an extreme Bostonian Ah/Ar sound (e.g. in car park). Back to Geordieland for University, where I rediscovered my roots and also had 2 Scottish flatmates, from whom I picked up my first Scottish words and phrases. Then on to Glasgow (link NSFW) for my PhD, where it took me about 2 weeks to understand anything anyone said to me. I was there long enough to pick up a lot more Scottish, plus some Irish words and phrases from assorted friends, especially my favourite flatmate.

From there, on to Canada, where some people apparently couldn't understand me at all, eh? I had to drop some words that no-one had ever heard before (e.g. peely wally), and modify my pronunciation of others (I got sick of having to ask for water 3 times before I got it, so I started saying "warder" like a true North American. Apparently Canadians are not familiar with the Yorkshire glottal stop; it's OK to turn your Ts into Ds, but not to eliminate then entirely). I've been here for almost 6 years now and more and more Canadian is seeping in. I still sound foreign to most Vancouverites, but my British friends and family are constantly pointing out how Canadian I sound. They think this is a bad thing; I think it's an inevitability.

So there you have it. No-one knows where I'm from any more, and fellow Brits are astonished when I tell them (I usually just say York). For Mad Hatter and others who tend to "hear" blogs in the native accent of the author, I apologise for this post and I hope you keep reading despite the confusion! If it's any help, I took the accent quiz at the original post and came out Bostonian. So just imagine that with a bit of Aussie, Geordie, Canadian, Irish and Scottish thrown in.

*check out the sound clips!

16 comments:

  1. Wow, you've got quite a mix for a native English speaker! I think I'll just stick to thinking you have a British accent... Although it would be fun to hear you read that new Ukrainian book of yours :)

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  2. Ah, but there's no such thing as a "British" accent ;) I'm sure a country as big as Ukraine has a lot of regional variation too?

    (Is it Ukraine or The Ukraine? I used to add the The but I think someone told me that it's wrong).

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  3. I grew up in a small village near a town with a pretty distinctive accent. I then moved about 30 miles away to uni where the people used to tell me I had a west-of-county accent, and then I'd go home and they'd tell me there that I had picked up the east-of-county accent.
    When I went back to my interview late last year they told me I sounded Scottish-Canadian.
    I usually get asked if I'm Scottish out here, and even if I'm from the east coast.

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  4. I know there is not such thing as a "British" accent, but for a non-native speaker it is tough to distinguish all the varieties!

    It's "Ukraine" ("The" seems to have carried over from the time when we were a republic in the USSR). And there is more than just regional variation in Ukraine as well - the East speaks mostly Russian (after being under Russian rule for over 3 centuries), while the West speaks mostly Ukrainian. Plus there is everything in between.

    The part of Ukraine I grew up in takes pride in speaking the purest Ukrainian, but when I go back I am told I have picked up a bit of an American accent?!?

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  5. Propter - I've been asked if I'm a Newfie once before, but not by a native English speaker!

    Isn't it annoying when people start to criticise you for adopting other accents? It used to really bug me but now I just say "well I've been here long enough, what did you expect?"

    Sciencegirl - it's interesting that people think your Ukrainian has acquired a US accent! You wouldn't think it would carry over into your native tongue. Of course, it's possible that people are just expecting to hear it and are therefore scrutinising your accent for signs of change.

    Oh, and I promise never to say The Ukraine again ;)

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  6. I wonder if it is the way we say words that make us sound North American, or the words and sentence structures we choose to use now. I think I use different sentence structures now compared to what I used to.

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  7. Ecogeoman definitely had to adjust his word choice when he move to the U.S., but when he goes back people say he doesn't sound American. I don't really hear his accent anymore (but I know he has it, of course) and I can't imitate it *at all*. What's more, even though I live with him, I often can't tell the difference between most non-American accents.

    Though I have NO ear for "foreign" accents, I can tell even very subtle differences in regional North American ones. weird, huh?

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  8. Propter: I'm sure that's true. My Dad thinks that my AQI (Australian Question Intonation?) is due to living in Canada, but I think it was a pre-existing condition caused by watching way too much Neighbours when I was at school. I've done my best to eliminate it regardless of where it came from!

    Eco - probably not that weird at all, just a matter of having the most expertise in the area you're most familiar with!

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  9. I also have a weird mixture of influences on my accent, but rather than having developed a hybrid accent, I've simply had different accents during different periods of my life.

    Most people I work with now think I have no accent, which probably means I have an American Midwest accent. Although the accent quiz thought I was from Philadelphia or south New Jersey...odd.

    I'm with ScienceGirl--for those of us non-Brits, our idea of a "British" accent is what we hear on the BBC. And since your accent is so complicated, I'm defaulting to "British" when I read your blog. :-)

    I might get flamed by Propter Doc for this, but I have to sheepishly admit that I imagine her blog voice as a sort of female Sean Connery....

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  10. That's another amusing North American quirk - to say that someone has "no accent" if they sound like you! Or to say "oh, you have an accent!" (I worked in a cinema in Ohio one summer and I got that a LOT. I tried to explain that they did, in fact, have an accent too, but most of them didn't buy it).

    It's interesting that you're always had distinct accents while all of mine have blended into one. I wonder why? By the way, I'm more than happy for you to imagine me with a posh BBC newsreader type accent, it is no doubt much more intelligent-sounding than my own! (Like most people, I hate hearing my own voice). I'm not sure what Propter Doc will have to say about the Sean Connery thing though ;)

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  11. Like you, I moved around quite a bit as a kid. Within five years in the south, my Canadian accent was all but gone...although I do say "eh" quite a bit!

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  12. I'm glad you're still in touch with your roots!

    I remember the first time I said eh, it kinda took me by surprise! It's a very useful little word though. My parents are both language teachers and say that it's the equivalent of the French "n'est-ce pas?" (Is it not so?).

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  13. I always pick up accents whereever I am ... and everyone always guesses differently on where I'm really from. I'm N. American but am pretty good at picking up on where people's accents are from - and I have to be careful that I don't accidentally adopt it because some people take offense!

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  14. Wayfarer - excellent, another hybrid accent! I am not alone...

    Is there a typical Alaskan accent at all?

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  15. I totally missed the Sean Connery thing! I'm sho shlow mish moneypenny! I do not sound like a female Sean Connery, more like...well, I've got an Edinburgh accent, an accent from the slightly posher bits of Edinburgh at that so I sound rather prim and proper while sober!

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  16. I had a couple of flatmates from Edinburgh during my undergrad days, and one of them was from Morningside, so I think I can imagine your accent now!

    We used to stay with the other flatmate's Dad, just past Morningside, for Hogmanay. Oh what fun!

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