Where’s that accent from?

Simple_world_map.accent

I was in a department store recently when the sales assistant initiated the following conversation:

“Where’s that accent from?”

“Oh, well I’m…”

“Wait! Let me guess! You’re from England, right?”

“No.”

“Um…New Zealand?”

“No.”

“South Africa?”

“No.”

“Scotland? Ireland?”

“No!”

“Germany?”

“No!

“Then where?”

“I’m Australian.”

“Ah! I knew it! That was gonna be my next guess!”

“…”

“Well, I just love your accent. I wish I had one!”

From here I switched into linguist mode and gave my usual speech about how everybody has an accent. (See: “I don’t have an accent!” and “Do You Sound American Yet?”)

I’ve tackled this topic many times before, so in this post I want to address it from a slightly different angle. That is, the viewpoint that asking “Where’s that accent from?” can be considered offensive.

Before a few readers moan, “Oh, stop being so sensitive,” perhaps it’s time that these people become a little more sensitive.

To the person being asked “Where’s that accent from?”, it can be interpreted as objectifying. That is, the question can feel like it reduces the person to his or her “accent”. People don’t like to seen as just their accents, much in the same way that they don’t like to be reduced to other personal identifying features, such as weight, skin color, hair color (or lack thereof), or age.

In addition to this, the question can be interpreted as a form of othering. That is, it can suggest that because the person has a different accent, he or she is “not one of us” and doesn’t belong, or fit in with everyone else. It can imply that the person is from somewhere else: So why aren’t they there instead? It often leads to presumptuous questions such as, “Are you just traveling?” and “When do you go back?” which can be insulting if you are a resident.

English is predominately spoken in the United States, Canada, England, New Zealand, and Australia, for example, but these countries are also muticultural and multilingual with long histories of immigration (and often violent colonization) – so it shouldn’t come as a surprise for anyone living in these places to encounter people speaking different accents and different languages on a daily basis.

Some might argue: But they’re asking this question because they’re just curious. They’re just making small talk. Maybe they’re just trying to be friendly? They didn’t mean to be offensive.

Of course, these points are usually true and the question can be well-meaning. But let’s forget about what is intended by the question for a moment, and think about how it is perceived. Take a walk in the other person’s shoes and think about how it makes someone feel to be asked this question or to be part of an accent guessing game.

What if I’d asked the (Coloradan) woman in my anecdote above if she were from Alabama? Could she be offended by my mistake? What if you’re a  Canadian confused for being an American, or a Scottish person confused as Irish? How would it make you feel if this happens to you a lot?

Often the offense is in the question itself. How would you feel if you were asked “Where’s that accent from?”: Every day? Maybe even several times a day? How would you like to be treated as a novelty – all the time – in the place where you live and work? And to be asked this and other personal questions by complete strangers, which thrusts you into an unwanted conversation (usually about Crocodile Dundee or Steve Irwin) in public at the supermarket, at the bank, in a doctor’s office, or in a department store when you’re just trying to mind your own business.

I was recently asked this very question in the dental chair by a hygienist when my mouth was wide open and she was cleaning my teeth…

When answering “Where’s that accent from?” myself I am polite in my replies. But after 12 years of being asked this question incessantly, and often inappropriately, it becomes frustrating to say the least.

Depending on the context, being asked “Where’s that accent from?” can be annoying, rude, or seen as invasive. Trying to guess where someone is from can be presumptuous, and mistakes can cause offense. And in situations where asking is used as a cheesy pick up line it can even be construed as harassment.

It’s the kind of question you should ask someone when you get to know them a bit better first as a person, not “just an accent”. And if it’s asked simply to make conversation, there are plenty of other ways to make small talk.

So, how about them 49ers?

Posted in: Uncategorized
Karen Stollznow

About the Author:

Dr. Karen Stollznow is a linguist with a background in history and anthropology, and is the author of the best-selling book God Bless America. Her other titles include Hits & Mrs., Language Myths, Mysteries and Magic and Haunting America. Her forthcoming books include Missed Conceptions and Not What The Doctor Ordered.

5 Comments on "Where’s that accent from?"

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  1. EricBanana says:

    I got so tired of asked this all the time I just answer them “I don’t like this question and I won’t tell you”
    I don’t owe it to strangers to go into details about my background.

  2. D. Fosdick says:

    Outstanding! Now I’m going to buy your book. Thanks!

  3. Kristi Evans says:

    If phrased the right way a question like this at the right time in the right way can be the beginning of a friendly relationship.
    A friend of mine used to work for a well known international NGO and was famous for having lavish Christmas parties in her home. At one of the parties I met a wonderful woman I’ll call Ms. C. After a wonderful evening of interacting with C I asked her something to the effect of “I’ve been trying to place your accent all night and sometimes it seems Eastern European and sometimes it seems Italian.” She smiled and replied “It’s because I’m Romanian.” Of course!
    Now we always remember each other.

  4. Em says:

    If it makes you feel better, I’ve got the continental reverse going on! I’m a Denverite who has been living in Tasmania for awhile now, and I get asked about my accent all the time – People almost invariably guess Canadian, then go on to explain that they didn’t want to guess American because it might offend me. Well…

    It does make me feel a little better to know that my people are being just as annoying 😉

    • That’s very interesting, Em! When I was a kid growing up in Oz we didn’t ask if someone was American because it might offend them if they happened to be Canadian instead! I guess we were more used to encountering American people.

      So, what’s a Denverite doing in Tassie?

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