Quarter Life Crisis

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Accented

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With everybody speaking English these days, it's fair to say that English speakers come in all colours and shapes. Most notably they come in all sorts of accents. It may be open to debate whether this 'diversity' enriches people or is more of an obstacle – because it can keep people from getting the message across. Certain regional accents from Scotland to China can be terribly hard to understand. Yet, your ear adjusts surprisingly quickly and once you expect the Scottish staccato or Chinese singing you'll understand people. Being caught off-guard or unconditioned may seriously hurt the flow of a conversation, though. At least if English isn't your mother tongue – and it seems also for everybody else.

Even the two most notorious homelands of the English language, England and North America, have fairly different accents as we all know. Having lived in England, I naturally have no problem with English pronunciation. The American pronunciation isn't too hard to understand either, but I sometimes need a little to adjust to what I like to think of as the 'chewing gum effect' – even if people aren't chewing they sound as if they do. Friends who've lived in the US sen an opposite effect.

Americans are kind of easy to fool. They mostly think I've got a British accent. And, surprisingly some take this as an excuse not to understand me. My key experience in that field happened in California a few years ago when I wanted to buy batteries and asked the assistant in the shop where they were. The guy simply didn't get it – even after several iterations of the word. I was about to start explaining the whole concept of storing electricity to him and about those little things you put in cameras so the flash works, when my friend who lived there stepped in, asked 'American style' and we immediately got what we wanted. And I didn't think the pronunciations were particularly different on that word. (My parents had a similar experience once when entering the US to go to Seattle and the guy a the border wouldn't let them through before he agreed with their pronunciation of the name – in Germany this would kill tourism from München to Greifswald.) Perhaps people who work in supermarkets just don't get around much.

In Britain, of course, people are very – and I'd say overly – accent conscious. Some people can – and invariably will try to – spot where you are from based on how you speak. That's a bit strange as well. And of course it's much harder to pass as a local there. In my best days I was able to do was to fool people into thinking I was in fact English but they couldn't spot where I was from. If you're from the country that brought you the German accent that's quite good. I can't stand hearing the German accent. It's quite annoying. How comes that the French get nice (but often strong) accents in foreign languages and people from Scandinavian countries or Holland tend to sound fairly neutral but Germans sound exactly like the Nazis in Hollywood films? Meeting German tourists is We have ways of making you talk all over again.

But I digress. This was just supposed to be a little introduction / apology for the post. It's a bit awkward now, I have a title that may have raised in a few people that more pleasantries about accented characters and Unicode may follow, I have mostly written about people – including German tourists – and the whole thing is actually about music. Who would have guessed?

When being out and about yesterday night, they played Pulp's wonderful Common People and I started thinking how the nice thing about Brit Pop is that people have British accents. Nothing too surprising there. But the matter of the fact is that I find it much easier to sing along with songs sung in a British accent than those sung in an American accent. Now this is funny – particularly because I don't find the 'chewing gum' effect to be present in most American English singing. Yet, trying to sing along with The Strokes or The White Stripes feels very strange, when you tend to end words in slightly different tones.

The next question I asked myself is whether Rock music is possible at all with an English accent. I have the impression that the English accent makes the words come out a bit subdued and it may be much harder to generate the necessary impact. Judging from the existence of The Clash or The Libertines, this isn't impossible. But I still wonder to which extent the language or even accent that people are using determines or influences the kind of music they make. Which, incidentally is also the point where I notice that I am not a linguist and haven't thought this through all the way.

Another song with a notable British accent played was The Streets' Fit But You Know It. I'm not a big fan of music which is mostly spoken word. And I find these on of the most un-musical songs I know. It's still quite addictive. On the other hand, I find his accent just a little bit too strong. It feels a bit like he's posing there. Nobody speaks like that. Even if they're from Birmingham. And Stella is used to refer to beer rather than a girl there – which reminds me of my time in England. And others as well, perhaps.

September 26, 2004, 18:11

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