I was talking to a Canadian recently about the raised-in-#canada Hollywood actor Ryan Reynolds. I remarked that Reynolds was doing quite well (he was voted People magazine’s 2010 Sexiest Man Alive) and then I commented that ‘He would have had to dump his Canadian accent when he crossed the border.’ The Canadian I was talking to replied ‘What Canadian accent? There isn’t one.’ Clichés about ‘out and about in a boat’ aside, yes of course there is a ‘Canadian accent’ just as there is an Irish, Scottish, Australian, German and –insert country here- accent.
Such accents are broad categories, as there are infinite number of different accents and dialects within a country, region and even city, but we all have an ‘accent’ of some sort. What is striking about the Canadian’s comment is the implication that ‘everyone else talks funny, just not us.’ And therein lays the thing about an accent. They are like those in-jokes you have with your friends, or weird family traditions and quirks. You can’t see that how you do things is in any way odd until you venture outside the bubble of the known, and realised that actually no, not everyone does it like that.
I come from #new zealand, when I’m making an effort, and Nu Zul’und when I give in to my inner sloppy Kiwi. I’ve heard someone blame the Kiwi accent on us not opening our mouths enough, and enunciating each vowel. That’s probably totally true. We’re just too darn lazy to sound out those pesky vowels, so they become strung into one long blur, with a rise in tone at the end of the sentence so that statements like ‘It’s raining today’ sound like a question. To the untrained ear, the New Zealand and Australian accents sound very similar, and I know I’m not the only Kiwi whose given up trying to explain where New Zealand is, and just said ‘yes #australia. I’m from Australia.’ Similarly, I have a Colombian friend who sometimes introduces herself to new people by saying she’s from ‘South America.’ An entire continent swept up into one, but maybe it’s easier that way. It’s a pre-emptive strike that assumes the person she’s talking to won’t know anything about her country, and most of the time she’s probably right. To say you’re from Columbia and then have a well meaning response like ‘oh how nice, I went to Argentina once’ would be more insulting.
The accents we choose to play up, play down or adopt say much about how we want others to see us. They reveal where we’ve lived, and sometimes are indicators of social background. There are those people who spend 40 years in an adopted country and still sound like they arrived yesterday, and equally many (Ryan Reynolds included) who let those verbal indicators of their former lives slip away, so as they can take on new lives and roles. Accents come in and out of fashion too. British celeb chef Jamie Oliver plays up his working boy London ‘innit’ accent. I caught a bit of an interview with his sister once, and she sounded completely different. Dead posh love, actually. Either something strange was going on in the Oliver household whilst Jamie and his sister were growing up, or he has chosen a particular accent as another way of presenting ‘brand Jamie Oliver- lovable chef from a humble beginnings.’
To have ‘an accent’ marks you out as being not amongst your ilk; a stranger. But accents have their advantages too. They can provide you with an air of the exotic simply because you’re so clearly not from around here. I will finish by stating that the Canadian mentioned at the beginning of the post is an otherwise very cultured, intelligent person, who paid me the ultimate compliment by saying that my accent did not sound in the least bit like an Australian. Th’unks mate.