I met a woman today who immediately asked me where I’m “from,” she said, “because you have no accent.”
To have no discernible accent – I strive for that because accents can be distracting. They are both distracting and charming, yes – I must admit that. But I get hung up on them, and that’s a problem when it comes to speech comprehension.
Perhaps it isn’t one’s accent, in and of itself — perhaps it’s particular words that hang me up. I begin analyzing the pronunciation of one or two or three words, and then I’m not listening to the speaker anymore.
Take “coffee” for example. Forget that inviting, exciting, musky aroma for the moment. How do you say it? Do you say kwoff-ee or kaf-fee or cough-ee or kohr-fee or any number of other pronunciations?
What about “house”? Hoose? Hoce? Haas?
Wait. I was just about to extol the great diversity of American accents and dialects by borrowing a French phrase (“Long live the differences”). It took me two seconds to realize, however, that we are certainly not alone when it comes to variety of speech. Regional accents are common in or on most continents, countries, regions, and languages. From Europe to Asia, and Africa to the Middle East, accents in native languages abound. Okay, Canada doesn’t count.
Here’s something odd. My Boston cousins have distinctly different accents, despite being raised under the same roof. Ask Cousin Al his heritage and you might hear “Buorstin Tayin” escape his salty lips (Boston Italian. The “r” is only hinted at, not actually said.). Cousin Rose would tell you she’s from “Southie,” yet she sounds like a Nebraskan.
Shooting a friendly rack of billiards with a Mainer (a guy from Maine) in 1976, I heard this: “I know yoah prahlm.”
I cocked my head. “What. What’s my problem?”
“It’s yoah kyooh.”
“What,” I said again, inspecting the ferrule like a jeweler looking for a flaw.
“Ah-ha.” I set the cue on the table and rolled it over the green felt. “My cue is warped.”
That was more than 35 years ago – another time and definitely another place. But today, now, are we experiencing a leveling of our dialects? Are we slowly losing our lovely accents and our pockets of wonderful American personality? Could we soon become the Unlisted States of America?
Are the television and movie media creating some neutered and homogenized accent that Bill Gates calls “American English“? General American? Is this a global evolution or phenomenon across all languages?
So listen, in the short time I’ve been thinking about this, I’ve gotten badly worked up. I probably need to lighten my anxiety. Call me warped, but maybe I should leave these pressing language issues to the experts while I grab an Americano back at the coffeehouse.