I’ve always been a sucker for an accent. My ear contorts with delight to tune in the voices of people who hail from places near or far, New York to New Zealand. Do I detect a bit of the brogue or a southern drawl? A midwestern twang or an Irish lilt? Speaking with an accent can make even the most mundane locales sound exotic – and the speaker sound fascinating, sophisticated or just plain fun.
But accents can be a delicate matter. North Americans will always ask you where you’re from but I have learned that on this side of the pond it’s not always so polite.
For Brits, your accent speaks volumes about your social class and what kind of education you received. In France, an accent from various parts north and south is peu recommendable (hardly a character reference).
Lots of people I know think they don’t have any accent. These are mostly people who’ve never left home. The fact is, everyone has an accent. Even we Canadians, such polite, diplomatic and otherwise non-descript types, are teased when we’re ‘out’ and ‘about’…
Anyone who learns to speak a foreign language as an adult will have a telltale accent in their adopted tongue. French natives who speak English generally give themselves away when the first few words leave their mouth (or is that mouse?). By a ‘r-r-r’ that catches in the back of their throats or a misplaced ‘h’ (‘ow hare you?).
But that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as a French accent in English can be charming (at least when you decipher what they’re saying), similarly an English accent in French is considered as sweet, sexy, even smart.
I remember watching the classic French film ‘Breathless’ (‘A bout de souffle’), with the late American actress Jean Seberg and Jean-Paul Belmondo. It was probably the first time I understood enough French to be able to follow a film on television – and I was fascinated by the way she spoke French so fluently yet with such a strong English accent (and by her gamine style.)
And then there’s Jane Birkin. Possibly France’s most famous adopted Brit, she was married to Serge Gainsbourg and is the mother of actress Charlotte Gainsbourg and singer Lou Doillon, Yet after decades in this country she retains an inability to pronounce a French ‘r’ and still says things like le chaise. As much as I like what she stands for, her French makes me cringe.
My own accent in French is fairly subtle now. It was not always so. It took years to be able to properly articulate vowel sounds like the ‘ou’ in ‘rouge’ vs the ‘u’ in ‘tu’. I was utterly mystified by subtle differences like the ‘é’ in élégant vs the ‘è’ in règlement. They sounded just the same to my unschooled ear.
The only time I was completely stymied by an accent, though, was when attempting to speak French with a fellow Canadian. A French Canadian, that is, who upon discovering we both hailed from the great white North began regaling me with an anti-French diatribe unlike anything I’d ever heard. The problem was I barely understood half of what she was saying.
Them Canucks sure talk French funny.
What about you? What does your accent say about who you are and where you come from?