Listen Carefully

Posted on August 1, 2014


AccidentHere’s a thing I’ve noticed. It has to do with accents, but the theory can be applied to a lot of other things, as well: The farther away we are from a place, the more everything seems to look and sound the same.

I’ll give you an example, because so far you have no idea what I’m talking about.

In the United States, everyone below Iowa and east of New Mexico speaks with what is generally referred to as a southern accent. Whether you’re from Cleveland or Calgary or Copenhagen, that’s what you hear – and it’s all you hear. Those southerners all sound alike. Don’t they?

Move in closer, though, and details emerge out of the haze. You start to discern that people from Texas don’t really talk like people from Alabama, any more than residents of Kentucky speak exactly like their neighbors in Tennessee. There are similarities, and just as many subtle differences. In fact, the more you listen, the more you realize that it’s possible to distinguish speech patterns from within various parts of the same state. Even small towns can have their own distinct accents, but in order to hear those distinctions, you have to be near the action. You also have to pay attention.

What does this have to do with anything? I’m not certain, but I think failing to acknowledge this premise is one of the ingredients in a dangerous process. It begins in ignorance, winds through insensitivity, and leads inevitably to hostility, racism, and xenophobia.

All Koreans look alike. Yes, from a distance they do, just as any crowd of total strangers will seem to share only that element of strangeness. We’re too far away to recognize their unique qualities. It’s after you meet and get to know individuals that you can tell one from another. The same thing happens with planets and cows and shades of color and disco music and Girl Scouts and identical twins and men with cerebral palsy. And soldiers.

I keep coming back to accents, though, because it’s a good example of how we influence each other over time. How do local accents form? Does one person suddenly start pronouncing a word a certain way, and everyone follows along? What keeps it going, and changing? Why do people in New England drop the letter R from certain words that have them, and then insert them into words that don’t? Were those conscious decisions, or two separate tendencies that eventually converged?

ArtistSometimes I imagine a gigantic vacuum machine that sucks all the people out of the world, blends them together in a big drum, then sprays them back out in random places. Assuming everyone now had to stay where they ended up, would the same accents return over time, or would there be all brand new ones? Out of the varied mixture, would there always be a single rhythm and pattern that would come to dominate the others?

When people are speaking a language we don’t understand, we can’t hear the accent at all. At least I can’t. Again, that’s because of distance, and inexperience. People from different regions of Algeria and Argentina must converse with an identifiable cadence and set of inflections, but I wouldn’t notice. To me, it’s all just Arabic and Spanish. I wonder, can people who don’t speak English notice a southern accent? Can they tell a Canadian speaker from an American? Melbourne from Manchester?

Speaking of Manchester, why do all foreign journalists have British accents? I think they’re faking. They know that if they sound British, everyone will think they’re intelligent. Maybe that’s how they got the job in the first place. I’m not even sure where that idea came from, because I’ve been to London, and they didn’t seem that smart to me. They call an apartment a flat. I’m no genius myself, but a flat is what happens to your tire when you run over a broken beer bottle. And they refer to a drugstore as a chemist. Everybody who’s ever watched cartoons must know that a chemist is a person who mixes liquids together and tries to make them explode. What does that have to do with medicine? If you have a migraine or a nervous condition, a loud bang and singed eyebrows is the last thing you need. So why a television reporter would adopt an English accent to impress us is beyond my comprehension.

One more thing. People with Irish, Scottish, and Australian accents sound normal when they sing, so they’re obviously pretending to speak that way in order to appear charming. I guess that works for a little while, but sooner or later we realize that they all talk that way, and the charm begins to fade. The fact that they all look alike doesn’t help either.