Accent on the you

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?

19 comments

  1. A year in Périgord · February 20, 2014

    A friend of mine (still) tells the story of when we were studying in France 20+ years ago. I answered a question from a stranger with a simple “oui”, to which they replied, “Ah, vous êtes anglais…” Hopefully, my accent has improved since then!

    • MELewis · February 20, 2014

      That’s hilarious! Actually, that one, little word is treacherous for us anglos as we tend to pronounce it as one syllable: we. Everything changes when you realize it’s actually two: oo + ee. Thanks for sharing!

  2. Food,Photography & France · February 20, 2014

    I get into a lot of trouble about my view of English regional accents. If you can’t be understood by one of your own countrymen, be it from another region, then someone’s taking the piss!

    • MELewis · February 20, 2014

      And you Brits are so good at that! 😉

  3. 365thingsiloveaboutfrance.com · February 20, 2014

    Oh, to be able to distinguish the é-s from the è-s and e-s and the vin, vent, and vont. How many more years do I have to stay en France until that happens?

    • MELewis · February 20, 2014

      Many more, I’m afraid….after 20 years I’m still not there yet!

  4. davidprosser · February 20, 2014

    Some days my accent is Welsh and some days from the North West of the UK. I’ve been known to slip into Black Country when talking to someone from the Midlands and a little Cornish when talking to someone from there but I can’t for the life of me
    ( and I don’t want to ) manage a Scouse accent. Liiverpool just defeats me. I will try my French accent from being a schoolboy centuries ago before that.
    xxx Huge Hugs xxx

    • MELewis · February 20, 2014

      Had to look up Scouse…fascinating how so many diverse accents can co-exist in such a small space! I can relate to having variable a accent depending on who you’re talking to – it’s a kind of empathy, I think. Big bizzes!

  5. Multifarious meanderings · February 21, 2014

    Hi, pleased to meet you, and thanks to popping round to my virtual pad 🙂 I hate hearing my accent in French on an answering machine, because my accent sounds as flat as a pancake compared to the rich accent they have around here. (Not that I leave myself messages on my own answering machine. Ahem.)
    My English accent appears to have toned down over the years, and I now get looked at suspiciously before the face lights up and I am asked if I am… German.

    • MELewis · February 21, 2014

      Funny how people can (mis)interpret accents…(German?) and how you hate hearing yourself in French. I always notice that friends who speak both English and French sound completely different in the latter. Generally, the voice drops about an octave and sounds softer. Would love to speak French with a bit of a sing-song accent like they have in your parts. I do find myself sounding a bit Swiss these days (we live near the border). Thanks for following along, and looking forward to reading you!

  6. hutschi · February 21, 2014

    Hi, I cannot speak French, and I learned English in school but had no opportunity to speak it until the unification, I just wrote English letters to a friend in Rumania.
    So I have a strong German accent, and I have a German friend who always tries to correct me,
    He also corrects me when I speak a word in German in a way that is influenced by my native dialect. I cannot speak my dialect 8a Franconian “Fränkisch” because we moved away from Thuringia when I was 4 years ald. I remember that it was like learning a new language.
    I lived in Dresden than, and here is a local accent very near to standard.
    I can hear that someone is from my original region just by accent. But they will not speak dialect to me because I cannot speak it, and so they keep symmetry. Its a pity that my parents tried to avoid that I learned dialects at all. They always said “Speak correctly”.
    When I went to scholl I was often ill but read lots of books. So I learned lots of words in books.
    This causes in seldom cases that I speak them with “false” stress.

    A second problem; many people do not see the difference between accent and language knowledge. While I do not habe problems to understand foreigners speaking German, some people just do not like the foreign accent. A former friend of my nice came to Germany and spoke German after staying here for two years fairly well. But many of my relatives did not accept his accent.
    And they spoke too fast and became angry he did not understand and so they spoke louder but even faster.
    From my own English learning I know that it is essentially in the beginning to speak slowly.

    • MELewis · February 21, 2014

      It is so true that people can assume speaking louder will make it easier to understand, and that slower is what’s needed! It’s also frustrating to be judged by your accent rather than the person behind it and the knowledge you have. Thanks for the thoughtful comments!

  7. nessafrance · February 21, 2014

    Despite 17 years in France and desperate attempts to lose it, I will always be saddled with an English accent. Some French people say, ‘Oh no, it’s charming.’ Others look perplexed, clearly fearing we won’t be able to communicate (although my French is now pretty fluent). I guess it’s something one just has to live with.

    • MELewis · February 21, 2014

      Well, at least you get to see the surprised expression on their faces when they discover just how well you are able to communicate! Thanks for your comment.

  8. Helen Devries · February 24, 2014

    When in France speaking French I was always told that I had a good accent – .’but that;s because you are Scottish…’
    So foreign but acceptable…..
    There were always some people who were so sure that they could not understand any foreigner speaking French they were not, in fact, able to do so.

    Now in Costa Rica they tell me I speak Spanish with a French accent and when I go to Spain they tell me it’s obvious that I’ve picked up my Spanish in Costa Rica….

    Aargh!

  9. Maison Bentley Style · February 24, 2014

    I love the romance of an accent – it’s like history in action! xx

  10. cassafrasswrites · February 25, 2014

    I’m so excited to have found you on Freshly Pressed! I just started learning French, so reading your posts is a super fun way to start expanding my vocabulary 🙂 Thanks for following my blog, too!

    • MELewis · February 25, 2014

      Merci! Glad you find the posts interesting and looking forward to reading you.

  11. Antonio Ethan Milian · March 4, 2014

    I definitely have a Spanish accent when speaking English (even though I’ve been in England for nearly a decade). I think I’ll always have an accent, but I’m OK with that.

    I think accents are part of our identities and make us a bit more individual. I want my English to be clearer and better understood but I’ve stopped worrying about impersonating natives.

    Great blog by the way! 🙂

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