Line breaks: ac¦cent
Pronunciation: /ˈaks(ə)nt , -sɛnt/
A distinctive way of pronouncing a language, especially one associated with a particular country, area, or social class:
a strong American accent
she never mastered the French accent
Accents are an utterly strange phenomenon. One is labelled by his accent as much as by his skin colour, and sometimes even more so than by his passport origins.
It could be a deal breaker on a date, it could get you hired or not, it could be the kick-starter of a conversation (or not), it could double your taxi bill or grant you a helpful nudge…. In Italy, when recognising my foreign accent, people usually become all friendly and helpful; however those same people all too happy to expose their knowledge of the Italian wines when I’m looking for a bottle at the supermarket, would most likely deny me a job. I carry the “foreigner” label every time I open my mouth.
Learning a language is one thing, it has rules, a grammar, and vocabulary to assimilate. It is structured. However accents are something different altogether. It’s what gives the flavour, like spices sprinkled on a refined dish. Accents can be funny, sexy, weird, picturesque, or just outright hinder communication! For that same reason, it is also extremely difficult to transform it – but not impossible.
I sometimes fail to understand why most people polish their appearance, writing skills, their oral expression, but don’t give that much importance to their own accents, or rather, seldom fail to pay attention to it, to nurture it and embrace it like any other parameter and characteristic of their speech. One can’t change their skin colour but can definitely work on their way of speaking, can’t they?
Why would one want to alter their own accent though? Well, it’s not so much changing it as it is by being aware of it for a start, understand what it means and how it reflects upon you. I remember exactly when I first became self-conscious about my way of speaking: at 18 I left my parents’ home for a cosy student studio, about a hundred km from there. What a surprise! I had always heard accents in my home town, in particular the ever mocked “port accent” as we call it (yep, port workers tend to have a pretty peculiar and heavy pronunciation there…), but it had never occurred to me that I could carry some traces of it in my own speech…of course in a milder version…. but still…when starting a conversation, after a few minutes, inevitably people would ask me where I was from. I needed to take control of that.
In the past few years I travelled quite a bit to Italy, and even learnt the language a bit. Italian is a “young” language, with plenty of regional accents and dialects, although fading, are still quite distinct. It stroke me the other day when listening to San Remo’s music festival that Rocco Hunt, a young 20-sth Italian rapper (ok not my finest musical reference but still) was singing in Neapolitan dialect, with a chorus in Italian banging the following message:
” Questo posto non deve morire
La mia gente non deve partire
Il mio accento si deve sentire ”
(this place shall not die // my people shall not leave // my accent must stay strong)
Accents are part of the culture, the identity; they are a social class flag, a way of communication. From a cultural perspective, erasing accents would indeed be a huge loss, in the same way that linguists mourn the loss of dialects. I totally acknowledge that.
All I’m saying is that at an individual level, taking control of one’s accent is potentially one of the most powerful communication tool. It might even be more important that speaking a foreign language in some cases.
I know many of you will disagree: so long as the message gets through, why bother? Grammar is more important to focus on surely? And listen to Roberto Benigni speaking English, isn’t it the loveliest thing? Isn’t it sexy? Wouldn’t it be an absolute shame if he was speaking with a plain Hollywood accent? Erg, he’d be a great deal less entertaining for sure. But how many of us have his talent and humour, and made their career of it? I don’t know you but “sounding funny” is no on my to-do list.
And like for any distinctive feature, not all accents are equal in the pecking order. According to a marketing survey that was conducted in the US about regional and foreign accents French or Italian is mostly viewed as educated, romantic and sexy (lucky us, there’s worse stereotypes…) but ask people what they associate with the Mexican accent in the US, Indian accent in the UK or Algerian accent in France?I’m not sure I would want to see that represented on a perception map.
And again, I’m not saying accents should be obliterated, the world would not be a better place with billions of indistinguishable little soldiers; only that having the ability to flick it on and off, or modulate it at will would be a powerful tool….one can only wish and carry on working.