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Thursday, June 09, 2005

Say what?

T-Accent96.jpgHE ONLY ASPECT of my pre-american self I am contractually bound to retain is my accent. Anything else - everything else - I am free to discard if I choose. But, I lose my accent, I lose my wife: simple as that.

Oddly enough, dropping all my former nationalist insecurities - the Scotland T-shirts, the Scotland bumper stickers, the Scottish flags tacked around my cubicle, tattoos of "Bonny Scotland" thistled on my forearms, insisting that scots were the first men in space, my kilt, tartaned to my family name and too small by several inches, visceral hatred of anything english - getting rid of all that has been remarkably easy. In this place that is saturated with immigrants from every corner, nobody gives a flying toss where you come from, and nobody - but nobody - needs to hear how much better the sausages were in the auld country. You get over it pretty quick; and ten minutes sat out back in the sunshine with a marguerita, it's like you were never, ever there. Occasionally something slips through the net, sure, but it's usually caught and slapped.

Except for the stupid accent. That must stay.

I am permitted to temper it, to speak more slowly and more clearly, and to omit much of the verbal corruption that goes with it, but to be brutally honest, I need to do that if anyone here is to understand a single syllable I speak? Youse jis couldnae honduhl the trooth ae it, an ah couldnae funcshun ony place here if ah didnae. Couldnae even buy eez a pockit ae fags, innat, eh no?

Want to know exactly what it sounds like? Watch Trainspotting. Leith, the port city in Edinburgh where it takes place, is where I used to work. Or you could read the book, which is written phonetically, for a flavor of the vocabulary. But when I did that it took me ages to find the rhythm and make any sense of it.

I am scots: but absolutely nobody (naeb'dy) here who hears me speak gets that. I have been thought, variously, to be french, german, to be scandinavian, often to be irish - but never scots? One time, even, the Sikh gentleman who owns our local convenience store asked me - and please, fill your ears with a sumptuously musical indian lilt as you read this - You have an accent! Are you from New York?

This inability to recognize an actual scots accent isn't your fault. I blame Hollywood and the English: both have in their time thrust upon an unsuspecting world a swarm of hideously bad scottish accents. From Scrooge McDuck to Groundskeeper Willie, via the paragon Scotty himself. Thousands of them - over-exagerrated and wrongly corrupted. Careless and lazy, more than anything, and often deliberately so. These are offensive to our ears for many reasons, but an important one, I think, is that they're mongrel: they capture certain gross qualities that are I suppose unmistakable, but none of the subtlety. We can't tell where these speakers are supposed to be from, and we should be able to*.

This variation in speech patterns - in tone, cadence, vocabulary, corruption - is endlessly amusing to my wife: she can't get over the fact that I can listen to a briton speak and tell you where - which county or city at least - they come from. Or are supposed to come from, if they're acting. British accents - certainly scots accents - vary from village to village, town to town, county to county. It is a simple fact that, just by listening, I could place anyone from around my home town to the precise village or community they come from, or at the very worst to within two or three villages promixate to one another. Valleyfield or Oakley I might have slight trouble distinguishing, but in Valleyfield or Oakley I could surely place you. Not Ballingry, not Cowdenbeath, and certainly not Kelty. I could not say for certain, but I have a strong sense that this granularity extends across the british isles?

Mel Gibson, incidentally, is clearly a weegie: his Braveheart accent (not too shabby, either) was pure Glasgow - pyoor Glesca. Except he did not close his sentences with By the way, by the way, nor even But, but.

Freeeeeduhm, but!

To my wife this, this talent call it, it spices-up her games of "Spot the Brit" that we play together in Vegas. She determines - by dress and look alone - who the brits are in the crowded gamblehalls of the casinos; we both wander innocently and surreptitiously into hearing range; then I tell her where they come from. Occasionally, for proof, she'll talk to them on some stitched-up pretext and cajole them to confessing I was right. She can do that - she can talk cold to strange people. Not me. No sir.

You can blame Matt Damon for today's dribble. Goodwill Hunting was playing on TeeVee at bed time last night and I was struck by the fact that most of the characters spoke with distinct accents. That is unusual. It stands out.

Here in the Golden State that beaches the Pacific Ocean, it's always me that has the accent - not them. In a funny way that's true: because all across this continent-spanning country there are only really a handful or so of accents. Would you agree? Most of the people, I'd be willing to bet, and so has my wife who knows everything, most of the people speak with a generic american accent that does not betray their roots to any greater degree. I've found this in many different places, places like Boston and New England where there is a perfectly decent local accent? I heard some New Englanders talk like they pahk the cah, but I heard and worked with many more who did not. It seemed to me that the accented were in the minority. Of course that could be utter bollocks: but I met the same phenomenon in New York and, dammit, even in Dallas? Maybe it's just the places I've visited? I might be persuaded I've been hearing Engineer, but in malls and restaurants they aren't engineers. New Orleans - N'awlins - that was an exception: pretty-much everyone there spoke with a charming drawl, but then New Orleans is an exceptional city. What d'you expect? [UPDATE: by curious conflaton and intersection of the spheres, we are pointed to Dis he' Possd by MadameL at La Vache Qui Lit I was wrong in my assumption.]

Maybe I'm wrong. Maybe each state does have a distinguishable accent, but I just don't recognize it? Can you, for example, tell a Californian apart from an Oregonian or a New Mexican or a Nevadan? I think I can tell Arkansas from Alabama, but probably not Alabama from Georgia or Mississippi - is there a difference?

One day I'll find out.

Meantime make do with other indicators. On a visit to Manhattan my wife thumped the back-end of a taxicab with her hand as it cut her off on a crossing and missed her by inches. "Get the f**k back to California, asshole!" he shouted back, hairily. How did he know?, said me.

* Most scots, incidentally, sound like a haemorroided John Wayne when they try to speak in an american accent. You can tell that we all come from Texas. Just saying.


Blogger Shuggy said...

Mel Gibson, incidentally, is clearly a weegie: his Braveheart accent (not too shabby, either) was pure Glasgow

LOL. Apparently, Gibson stayed with a Glasgow family (Wallace, no relation) to get the accent. He had to tone it down though - in the interests of being comprehensible to people who don't stay in the East End of Glasgow...

3:43 AM  
Anonymous stephenesque said...

Not so long ago i was forced to watch (through no fault of my own) a truly dismal TV show called "Monarch of the Glen". This supposedly takes place in the "Highlands" altho' nobody in it spoke as if they had a Scottish accent.

9:59 AM  
Blogger F.C. Bearded said...

Oh my lord - just when I thought it was safe to go back to the television, along comes BBC feching America and that despicable "Monarch" thingy with Richard Briers who ought to know better.

Henry V obviously did not hang him high enough.

Only ghillies and evil locals spoke with a scottish accent, right? The "Laird" and his crew were plummier than Gosforth Park?

That's more than likely an accurate depiction. But who needs to see it on telly?

10:44 AM  

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