Thursday, July 11, 2013

English, as she is spoke

We were both speaking English during our three-hour flight from Cayman to Houston, this Barbadian fellow and I, but I recognised only about one word in five. There is more than one Bajan accent, and his was too strong for me to handle. I was exhausted by the time we landed, and kept as far away from him as I decently could, while waiting for the luggage.

Instead, I introduced myself to another team-mate, this time from Yorkshire. Huh. One word in five again, if I was lucky. This was in 1980. I’d spent most of the last two decades in and out of seventy countries, listening to foreigners speaking English in seventy accents. Only once before (see below) had I ever been as stumped. In the bus on the way into town, I kept my distance from both of my tormentors.

We were all members of a scratch team of local cricketers, invited by a (the?) Houston club to a fun tournament over the long weekend. Later, all the teams met up in a bar, and settled down to some serious chat, in proper English. Midway through the evening I noticed the Bajan and the Yorkie babbling away in a corner on their own, getting on like a house on fire – no communications problems in sight. How could that be? By some fluke, the two broad accents happened to complement each other. I could scarcely believe my eyes.

Everyone knows that different dialects can be a problem in any language. But accents can throw conversations off the rails just as readily as dialects or slang. Speakers of dialect usually know to switch to the relevant standard dialect when talking with outsiders. That’s only common sense. But they don’t always think to change their accents.

In England for the first time in 1963, pretty much straight from home, I hitched a ride with a young Cornishman, and... Well, you can see where this is going. Mercifully, his English girlfriend was on hand to translate every single word spoken by both of us – one sentence at a time.

So I learnt to drop all slang words, and all the expressions peculiar to Queensland. Only then could I be understood. Later, on “The Continent” (mainland Europe), the natives had difficulties with my diphthongs – so my owld (rhymed with howled) had to become old with a rounded o. Dyee became day pronounced dei – still a diphthong, but with clear vowels.

I’ve never lost my Australian accent altogether, but it has softened to the point where I can pass for English, unless I’ve had too much drink or not enough sleep. Even most English think I’m English. Which is silly, because they aren’t able to place my accent – and if you can’t place someone’s accent, they’re probably foreign. There’s that clever line spoken by Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady, about Eliza’s exposure as a fraud: “Her English is too good”, he said, “which clearly indicates that she is foreign”.

It’s not just in English that accents are hard to fathom. When my son did TV commercials in Mexico for international products, the videos were used in other Latino nations; but the voices had to be dubbed in those countries’ accents. Only in one country (Bolivia, I think) was the accent close enough to the Mexican one to be acceptable.

After a few years in Norway, learning from a Norwegian girl-friend and Norwegian children, he could pass for Swedish, but he’s progressed beyond that now. Native Norwegians can’t place his accent, though, which by the Henry Higgins rule ought to label him as foreign. Instead, they suppose he’s from somewhere up north, because all northern accents are regarded as barbaric.(The world over, really! Smile...)