I often have difficulty being understood when I say “water” in my Australian accent. The word comes out sounding like wau-ta or wau-duh. So, in order to be understood, I usually put on my best American accent and pronounce my “r”. This morning, this approach didn’t fool the barista, so I had to repeat myself twice before finally resorting to saying, “H20…” Then the penny dropped. (Although this tactic has failed upon occasion too…)
“Ah! You mean ‘Water!'” she realized. “You have an accent.”
“You do too!” I replied, although she looked rather perplexed, which suggested to me that she was probably thinking, “You’re the one with the accent. Not me…”
When we’re surrounded by a particular accent, it can be easy to perceive any accent different to yours as an “accent”, but to see your own accent somehow as the “norm.” I used to teach at San Francisco State University, and during a class discussion about accents one of my students insisted, “I don’t have an accent!” Some of her classmates agreed – believing that Texans and New Yorkers are the ones with accents. I assured them that they too have accents, and that they’re the ones that “have accents” according to Texans and New Yorkers…
To many people, an accent is something they don’t think they have. People from other states or other countries are the ones with accents. An accent is something laden with stereotypes, like a “dopey” Southern accent or a “gnarly” accent spoken by a SoCal surfer. Alternatively, an accent is seen as something foreign and exotic, like a “sexy” French accent, or a “laid-back” Aussie accent.
(It’s important for me to mention here that in linguistics, accent denotes pronunciation only, while dialect refers to both grammar and vocabulary, but not accent.)
It’s difficult to recognize another accent and dialect if you’re not attuned to hearing it. I often find in Thai, Korean, Japanese, and other Asian restaurants in the States that people are attuned to hear American English and can understand my husband clearly, but they can have difficulty understanding my Aussie English.Last week a friend-of-a-friend complimented me on my good command of English…
Woman 1: You speak such good English!
Woman 2: They speak English in Australia!
It’s confusing when someone obviously speaks the same language as you, but throws in an unfamiliar-
sounding word here and there. It takes exposure to become familiar with different dialects and accents. Australians are raised with television from the United States, New Zealand, England, Ireland, and other English-speaking countries, so we’re familiar with the different dialect and accent varieties of English.
However, Americans are often inundated with home-grown TV programs, aside from the occasional episode of Doctor Who. With Americans having a little exposure to British English, I am often mistaken for being British.
But this exposure is limited. For decades, television shows popular in other countries have been remade
specifically for American audiences. Shows such as The Office, Kath & Kim, Three’s Company (Man About the House in the UK), and Sanford and Son (Steptoe and Son in the UK) are revamped for American TV with American accents, dialects, and humor.
The misconception that there is an “unaccented” form of speaking isn’t limited to English. My brother used to travel for work between England and Germany, and so he took some language lessons. One day his teacher told him:
“You speak perfect German without an accent!” she gushed. “You sound like you’re from Hannover!”
Obviously, Hannovarians have an accent, and that’s how we can tell they are (probably) from Hannover. An accent is like a linguistic fingerprint that can reveal information about our past and present. Forensic phoneticians analyze accents and can trace a person’s linguistic background with an astonishing degree of accuracy.
So, the next time someone implies that they don’t have an accent you can set them straight. We all have an accent!