Word Nerd: How We Are Divided by a Common Language

5 Sep


359 million of us may speak English but accents still distinguish us – just like the brand of our watch or sunglasses, the degree we hold, or the clothes we wear.

When we travel, accents can seem like verbal passports – they announce who we are and where we’re from. They also help us build instant connections. The joy of recognizing a familiar language and/or accent in a foreign land is unmatched.

When I was in college, and given to getting lost, it made me nervous about traveling. That’s when one of my smarter classmates said to me, “The map’s in your mouth.” It sounded rude but the meaning was simple – I could always get directions by asking.

Later, when I went on to study for a postgraduate degree in the UK, her words assumed a new significance. My accent was often my introduction. And it was true the other way around as well. I knew a Londoner from a Highlander, or a New Yorker from a Texan by listening to how they spoke.

What is interesting is how accents divide us even when we speak a common language. As English comedian John Bishop jokes in the video linked below, “We have different accents very, very close to each other all over England. . . mainly because if people speak different than you, it gives you a reason to hate them.” His fellow guest, actress Diane Kruger, then goes on to ask him if he can do an English accent. It sounds funny given that Bishop is as English as Prince Charles (if not more) but underlying her request if the implication that speaking with a Received Pronunciation (like Prince Charles) is to be definitively English, not if you speak with a Scouse accent (like John Bishop does).

Watch the video from 1:38 onwards.

Sounds incredible when you think about how the UK isn’t exactly a sprawling mass of land with thousands of different languages. Quite the opposite, in fact. But, for a quick survey of accents spoken in the Queen’s own country, check out Siobhan Thompson’s guided tour of 17 British accents. As she suggests, British accents seem to have ties with both land and class. The nasal twang of Birmingham links to the industrial revolution, whereas Received Pronunciation has strong class associations.

A lot is heard in an accent across the pond as well. Amy Walker, in her video – Fun Tour of American Accents, shares interesting thoughts on why people in different cities in the US speak the way they do. In New York, according to Amy, people speak with what she calls the “trumpet effect” – meant for a crowded city where people must make their space. Down south, where life is more laid back, the accent softens and slows, becoming a drawl.

But do we all speak with accents? Surely, the way I speak is normal, whereas you speak a little funny (said the Australian to the American to the Briton to the Indian).  This is part of what makes experiencing different cultures so much fun. And we learn that while we are all different, we are all still connected. Different pins on one map.

Do you have any interesting observations or anecdotes to share from traveling abroad and hearing familiar or unfamiliar accents?

Share your thoughts by emailing us or leave a comment below! Check out previous Word Nerd posts here!

By Skendha Singh

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