Sunday, October 15, 2017

pronounciation, accent and dialect...

The ideas of dialect and accent have been on my mind the last couple of weeks. First, I went out with my friends here in the South whom I’ve now known for over 10 years (!Where has time gone?). They commented that when they met me, fresh of the plane from Sweden, I spoke a clear British English. Now? It’s eroding and I sound more like a bland American English with some weird southern words and syntax at times (think y’all, fixing to do), extra confusing when interspersed with British English words* and spelling (I'm still spelling BE and have to change my automatic word check to AE when I write for work)

There are exceptions of course, when I speak to my British friends and coworkers I slip back into the BE accent. It's also one of those things when I give official talks or presentations, it's all BE. The main thing though, and that which makes me the most annoyed, is that my tone of voice is different in various languages, dialects and accents. I don’t know if I’ve mentioned it in the blog before - if I have it’s been  years so if you read this post you probably don’t remember or never read it anyway - but this is something that has been on my mind a lot. You see, in native Swedish I have an alto voice. It’s not shrill, it’s not as childish, it’s my “vomanly voice” (Janet Reno?). I first noticed the difference in tone of voice when I learnt French since I have a tendency to go a little higher pitch in order to get the correct sounds and rolling rs and some of those other non-native french speaking distinctions that one uses to address questions and surprise.

British English, to me, has a couple of sounds that require the tip of the tongue to go spelunking in the front of the teeth, on the top and sometimes locking in on the lower teeth as a semi lisp (think ‘issues’). American English? Well, in the beginning of living here I explained that AE is a little more like being drunk and talking with food in your mouth. Sorry for being rude, it’s what I said at the time. I can recognize that there are more stressed Rs in the pronunciation and that makes is a little more “chewy” to talk. Think about how to pronounce "were" [wae:] and "were" [weRr]. Compared to BE I don’t have to focus as much on how things are pronounced since it is less subtle, thus finding it easier and a little less precise, if that makes sense?

German, as a contrast, has the same pitch as Swedish to me when I speak it. There’s a lot of overlap in the sounds and diphthongs feel more natural and I have a good sense on how to make the sounds without thinking or working it too much. It’s also a couple of more throat sounds (guttural?) so I think it is easier to keep a lower voice/pitch. (This is me guessing obviously, I'm not a linguist at any rate.)

After a few months here in the United States I realized that while I was speaking English every day at work, on the weekend I kept up with my Swedish friends and family and when I had spent too much time (many many hours) on the phone in Swedish I was horse. Why? Because I stressed my voice in American English much more and I changed pitch every time I shifted languages.

Why am I thinking about this now? Well, it’s a disclaimer for something that will happen in a few weeks or maybe months...

You see, I got asked to be on a podcast in an interview! A great honor and so much fun. I practiced my “voice” before the interview, and prepped things that I wanted to say and planned good proper BE since that is what I normally end up talking when I’m on panels or giving talks. (Note, usually after giving a talk my colleagues come up to me in the end and comment that I’ve slipped into the BE and wonder why? Because I feel grounded in BE and I feel more confident in it? Or that I'm not trying to adapt to the AE all around me in the stores and I do try and fit in so I'm not an obvious immigrant all the time?) Anyhow, I need to continue with my excuse and explanation and not get side tracked.

I did the podcast. It was great fun. However, in the end I realized that I was SO not speaking BE. I sounded like a fairly arrogant American English speaker. Or maybe it’s mostly in my head (the arrogant part at least. No joke on the AE speaking part). But anyway, the pitch is very high and I am a little worried that I sound too childish and girly.

You see, I've read a lot about women and voice pitches. And that the girly/higher pitch is a great deal less threatening than the alto womanly voices. If you've ever turned on the American telly in the morning shows, I'm sure you know what I mean. All abundant, the fairly high pitch voices.

Regardless of what you think about this, it’s something on my mind. And I would be disappointed in myself if I continue sounding high pitched and nonthreatening since I’m a confident woman and should like to be considered as a smart competent woman.

I guess I have my work cut out for me. To either "change back to BE" or accept that I now sound like a AE person although I still pronounce 'z' as [zed] to the annoyment of everyone, and what that means to my perception about myself. Oh to face your own prejudice.... 

Lucky for me, this will never be an issue in my native language. That's always going to be "proper Swedish" where it's clear where I come from.

TLDR: if you happen to hear a podcast with me in it, please remember that I thought I was still sounding like a person speaking British English like I was brought up. And, when singing and speaking my native language, I'm an alto.

*pronouncing 'z' as [zed], jumper in clothing, lifts and lorries, autumn and all the 'll' and 're' in  words like travelling and centre ... It's a bit of a mess...


Nina said...

Interesting food for thought Chall! I haven't noticed my voice changing pitch with different languages, but perhaps Dutch and German and English are too similar for that to happen, although I always enjoy hearing Swedish and thinking how it is such a great mix of those languages. But I never tried very much to pronounce or speak it.
I once heard someone say that you are different persons in different languages but recently I started thinking that is just because you also usually move country when you speak a different language.
Having learned to really speak English in Canada, people still think I have a Canadian accent (or North American, but usually people seem afraid to offend me in case I am Canadian and won't say it's an American accent, hahaha funny). After a few years I could do the kiwi accent quite well, but it takes effort, and so now I am struggling with it again.
Anyway, I think it's great to confuse people with BE ;) And so very cool you were on a podcast!

chall said...

Ahh.. the Canadian accent not to mention the kiwi one :) I work with one kiwi and two australians and some others here don't hear the difference..... (let's just agree to disagree is what I told them). The English accent that really throughs me off has been the South African one. I haven't heard it enough I guess? And recently listens to a speaker than I spent too much of the talk trying to establish if they were from aussie or nz but then realized I was on the wrong sid of the world! ;)

and yes, your point about the country and "being a different person" might have more to do with country than language. It might just be more obvious to me who has changed language when moving country. Good point! I would probably be slightly different again in the UK rather than South of USA.

(the podcast is very cool. I'm probably humble-bragging but it was a huge deal for me. I'm not used to thinking someone would be interested in interviewing me. I will post the link from the blog once it is up.)