Hello, readers! Summer’s here, even if the cool temperatures and rain mean it feels more like October than July in Germany… but vacation season has arrived and so too has the time for a new blog entry.

This week’s recommended reading:

The Accent Whisperers

Have you ever wondered how it’s possible for actors to slip into wildly different roles–and wildly different accents than their native one? Enter: The Accent Coach. See the article for more.

Reading this piece got me thinking about accents, and how the ability to imitate or take on other accents can be a blessing… and a curse?

Perhaps you know someone who has moved from one far-away region to another but has stubbornly retained their native accent. Even better are the folks who claim to have no accent at all, when to you it’s plainly evident they do.

As for me, I’ll never forget my 8th grade English teacher, who hailed from Tidewater Virginia (and had a very pronounced non-rhotic Tidewater accent), writing the words „pen“ and „pin“ on the chalkboard after I claimed I did not speak with an accent. (After all, my notion of someone who „speaks of an accent“ was my great grandmother, who was born in 1912 in Eastern Kentucky. Compared to her I really did speak the Queen’s English).

She pointed to each of the words on the board and asked me to pronounce them. Both words, hailing from Southwest Virginia as I do, sounded exactly the same to me. But alas, she explained, to other English speakers there was indeed a difference, which I heard then for the first time: P/ɪ/N and P/ɛ/N  — an epiphany!

I wouldn’t read about the pin-pen merger until I took linguistics in college, but my new-found awareness of my own accent, and my heightened awareness of the way others spoke, changed my life.

The United States may not be quite as awash in dialectal differences as most European countries are, but there are some noteworthy differences from region to region, which you can see on this amazing map. What would prove particularly consequential for me in this regard though, I would soon learn, is that not all accents were created equal in the eyes of the American bicoastal elite.

This became abundantly clear to me when I moved from far Southwest to Northern Virginia in my junior year of high school, where my newly-made acquaintances would take me up to their friends and ask me to „talk.“ I’m fairly sure the first time this happened I simply said, „What?“ and everyone burst out laughing. „Well… you know. Talk!“ they said. „Your accent is hilarious!“

Being the self-conscious teenager that I was, I determined I’d do whatever it took to speak like an NPR newscaster. Am besten schon gestern. Because, you see, my native accent sounds like this:

In fact, my parents‘ house is situated directly to the left of where Mr. McClanahan is standing in this image (driveway in the far lower left closest to his elbow).

You would never know I grew up speaking like this if you met me.

How does Mr. McClanahan’s accent sound to you?

For an even more extreme example (this is very similar to how my great grandmother, who lived next door to my childhood home, spoke), listen to this interview with Ralph Stanley:

For German readers, you’ll probably say this sounds like a „cowboy“. In a lot of places in the U.S., the accent of the Inland South would be associated with words like stupid, redneck, podunk, hillbilly, etc., i.e., if you show up in New York City speaking like this people will more or less dismiss you as an idiot the moment you open your mouth.

Needless to say, I did not appreciate being taken for a dolt because of how I spoke and I was not going stand for a few vowel sounds standing in the way of my being taken seriously. I dropped the Inland South accent like a hot brick and never looked back.

From an adult perspective, I realize that this decision opened countless doors for me, both educationally and professionally. At the same time, it’s an injustice. As a person who loves and lives from languages, and as someone who appreciates linguistic diversity more than the average bear, I’m outraged, even heartbroken, that, after all these years, I truly can’t sound like myself unless I call my grandmother. After all, how intertwined are language and identity? And what part of oneself is lost when one abandons one’s native accent?

I imagine that people who were born in and have moved away from Magdeburg might feel similarly?

Have you ever tried to hear your own accent? Hier im Rheinland würde man, denke ich, behaupten, der Bayer oder Schwabe doer Sachse habe einen Akzent. Und doch hat der Rheinländer ebenfalls einen. Hasse dat gehört? Wat hasse gesacht? Nee, so hab‘ ich dat nich gemeint. Isset am rechnen? Dann fährsse besser mit dem Auto als mit de fiets. 

Do you happen to know someone who has moved to a different region and effortlessly adopted the accent they hear in their new surroundings?

I remember Madonna getting a lot of flack for taking on a British accent at some point back in the 90s. But there are, in fact, quite a number of people who tend to adopt, to a certain extent, the accent of whomever they happen to be speaking (confession: I really try not to but do indeed tend to do this). There’s a name for it: the chameleon effect, described by researchers at the University of California, Riverside.

According to Professor Lawrence Rosenblum, who headed the study, „We intentionally imitate subtle aspects of each other’s mannerisms, postures and facial expressions. We also imitate each other’s speech patterns, including inflexions, talking speed, and speaking time. Sometimes we even take on the foreign accent of the person to whom we are talking, leading to embarrassing consequences.“

Essentially, the chameleon effect is an expression of empathy. So the next time you catch yourself doing it, pat yourself on the back. After all, imitation is the sincerest–and an instinctive–form of flattery, and you’re just being your most empathic self.

So if you’ll be traveling this summer, enjoy paying attention to the accents you hear around you–and don’t beat yourself up if you catch yourself mimicking it (subtly!).