Where Are You From Originally?

The US is full of accents and I live cradled between two of the more famous accent regions… Boston and New York—or should I say “Bahstahn” and “Noo Yawk.”

Many of my aunts live in New Jersey (Noo Joisey), so I grew up hearing things like dawg, cawfee, and gawd (dog, coffee and god), but now in New England I hear a lot of dropped “r’s” such as the stereotypical Bostonian accented phrase, “I pahked the cah in Hahvahd Yahd” (I parked the car in Harvard Yard). And I can’t forget the usage of “wicked” as in “really” such as… “Wow! It’s been a wicked haht summah!” (hot summer).

Growing up (in central New York… far from all the cawfee shops and heavy accents) I never thought I had an accent, I guess most of us don’t until we meet other people, but I always thought I sounded kind of like the people I watched on tv. I didn’t find anything particularly distinguishable about the way I spoke, and I suppose my sisters and parents spoke in a similar fashion.

But then, about ten years ago, I started traveling extensively abroad and increasingly interacting with people from countries other than my own. Today I probably spend 80-90% of my day with foreigners and over time I guess it started to affect my accent. It wasn’t intentional, it just happened, and it isn’t something I’m conscious of unless someone points it out to me.

Which happened recently. Last week my mother and sister came for a visit and they were discussing my apparent change of accent. My mother said I was “putting on airs” while my sister just said I was trying to “sound British.” I don’t think either is true.

Some of my international students have noticed as well. I’ve had several ask me, “Where are you originally from? You don’t sound like you are from the US.” When I ask them where I sound like I am from they can’t usually place it. After responding that I am, in fact, from the US they say, “Maybe you sound different because you speak slower and more deliberately. You clearly pronounce all your words.”

And I think that is a big part of it… not airs, but when someone is used to speaking with people whose first language is not English you choose your words more carefully, you pronounce them fully (instead of dropping T’s like a lot of Americans tend to do), and you speak a bit slower, perhaps this makes you sound like you are from somewhere else.

I’ve noticed this with a few other people I’ve met who have spent significant time abroad, or spend a lot of time with foreigners. I’ve also noticed that this type of “accent” is more pronounced in these same people when I see them talking to others whose English is not as strong, rather than with foreigners whose English is completely fluent.

Plus it’s easy to reflect surrounding language as well. For example, in the part of central New York where I grew up we pronounced the word “aunt” like “ant” with a hard “A,” but in New England most people say “aunt” like “ah-unt” and since this is similar to the South Asian way of saying “ah-unty” I have found it easier to adjust to “ah-unt.” So now if I am talking to my sisters about my “ah-unt” I must sound to them more “British” since they will talk about the same aunt as “ant.”

Lastly, I won’t deny that I have picked up a few Nepali-English phrases as well that kind of pop out every now and then. I can’t really think of any off the top of my head, but if I say them in the company of my sister she calls me out on it.

Fun with accents– I found this website that lets you listen to a list of words spoken by people in different regions. If you use the word “father” and try the different areas in the US– Chicago, Boston, New York, North Carolina and Alabama, you can really hear the difference!

Talking about accents has made me feel “wicked smaaht.”

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2 responses to “Where Are You From Originally?

  1. Yes I definitely agree that for native American English speakers, spending a lot of time abroad or around people who speak English as a second language can affect one’s accent and somehow causes us to sound like we are faking a type of British accent. I remember being in a Dubai restaurant many years ago and asking for “water” in an American accent and the South Asian waiter could not understand me. Finally, I said it in a very enunciated way (without changing the /t/ to a /d/ as we do in American dialects of English) and he was like “ooooh, waaaTer!” Let’s just say that is the last time I asked for water in an American accent.

  2. There also tends to be a vocabularly shift – for instance “shifting” instead of “moving”, “flyovers” vs “overpasses”, etc, at least for me. Mostly it’s unconscious, but I’ll also consciously translate everything to Celsius and kilometers mentally if I’m talking to a non-American who I know is not used to the American measurement system.

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