I have been in London for a month now. And it is having its way with me! More specifically, its people are having their way with my accent.
Now, an accent, according to the Fount of All Knowledge* is a manner of pronunciation peculiar to a particular individual, location, or nation. For all intents and purposes, I should have an Australian accent, having been located and naturalised for the last decade Down Under. I don’t get mistaken for being not-Australian when I’m home. However, not a single person in my tutorials here has yet supposed that I am Australian. Something is in the air…
It turns out that I live in Babelondon. In my apartment building alone, there are at least 10 distinct nationalities. Yesterday evening I met people from Iran, Canada, America (oh so many Americans…more on those later…), France, Austria, Germany, Greece, Israel, Japan, Finland, Scotland, Ireland and oh…England, for good measure. The LSE has at times had more nationalities represented than there are member states in the UN. The only ethnolinguistic commonality we hold is English – an English that is dressed in a multicoloured cloak of accents. Check out this guy for a comic impression:
Back to the matter at hand. Even as I write this, my mind’s voice says “Oss-tralian” and not “Shhhtralian”, a habit I have adopted not out of snobbery but out of a need to be understood. (Ok, maybe a little bit of snobbery too.) Anyway, I cop no end of flack [aha! Howzzat for a bit of common parlance?!] for changing my German accent when I’m speaking to Hochdeutschers. My brother in particular moans about my occasional drawled ‘r’. He would have strangled me yesterday when, while speaking to my lovely Canadian flatmate, I heard myself ceasing to disaggregate my vowels and consonants – “YeahIknooow budwhenthere’zz other madders to tayyke into caahnsideration, like, no?” It was other-wordly. And yet the cabbie the other day thought I was from “up the road”.
So – should I be self-diagnosing with a bad case of linguistic schizophrenia?
Perhaps not. My Googling reveals that scientists have shown there is a powerful drive to mimic other people. [See David Darby, 6 August 2010, The Daily Mail]. Conducting experiments with lip-reading, psychologist Professor Lawrence Rosenblum of the University of California has found that the brain subconsciously tries to copy the speech patterns of total strangers.
The researchers believe accent mimicry is part of the brain’s in-built urge to ’empathise and affiliate’ with other people. And we don’t even need to hear them saying the words out loud. The learned Professor asked volunteers to watch a face on a video screen silently speaking 80 simple words, such as tennis and cabbage. The volunteers all had good hearing, and none had formal experience of lip-reading. They were asked to identify the words by saying them out loudly and clearly. And to help, they were given a choice of two words – a right one and a wrong one such as tennis or table. They were not asked to either imitate or impersonate the talker, just say what the word was.
Amazingly, the tests showed they were more likely to repeat the word in exactly the same accent used by the speaker rather than their own accent.
The findings are reported in the journal Attention, Perception and Psychophysics. Professor Rosenblum said: “Whether we are hearing or lipreading speech articulations, a talker’s speaking style has subtle influences on our own manner of speaking. This unintentional imitation could serve as a social glue, helping us to affiliate and empathize with each other.”
Past studies have shown we also have a subconscious desire to copy the movements, gestures and speech pattern of those we are talking to – known as ‘the chameleon effect’. Former Prime Minister Tony Blair was known for changing his accent – and dropping into Estuary English – to suit his audience. Many actors attempt to take on regional accents for roles – with mixed success. Anything that comes out of Gerard Butler’s mouth is sexy. However Andy McDowell attempting British English in Four Weddings and a Funeral is like having your ears removed with a cheese grater.
So! As “an accent may identify the locality in which its speakers reside (a geographical or regional accent), the socio-economic status of its speakers, their ethnicity, their caste or social class, or their first language” I am just going to have to deal with the fact that I not only have to explain “I’m Austrian, and Australian. Yes, that one. The one with the cows. Yes and the one with the Kangaroos. No really, both.” to a bunch of Americans, I’m also going to have to accept that my accent – owing to my pronounced desire** to empathise and affiliate with other people – will be 193 shades of international from now on.
Welcome to London!
** Pronounced desire! Ahaha! Wicked pun.