April 7, 2009

Accent Snob

When I was a child, my dad used to admonish me, "Don't speak Ohio-ese" or "Don't talk like a hillbilly." No offense to hillbillies, but what he meant was to use proper grammar and enunciate the "g" at the end of verbs. But, proudly, I still sound like an Ohioan.

There is nothing like a trip to England to make you self-conscious of your accent. I happened to be chatting with an English couple in the British Museum. (They were consulting the London A-to-Z, so I asked them for directions.) "You Americans have a lot more 'r's than we do," the man observed. "Fer shure! Amurrricans rrrreally do," I agreed.

My friend and hostess, Martha, is a native North Carolinian. When I met her in Chicago, she was trying to modify her southern accent. "People think you are stupid," she explained. (True enough. Not that southerners are stupid, except for the case of George Bush. There must have been a reason he put on that strong faux Texas accent. I am sure he didn't talk that way while at Yale.) Now that Martha has spent half her life in London, her accent reflects it. Not quite English and certainly not recognizably American, it has morphed into somewhere in between. Her 13-year-old, a true Londoner, told me that Americans think she is English, but in England she is readily recognized as an American.

The younger Danes I met also spoke American-inflected English, unlike their parents who learned British English in school. "You have the quintessential American accent," they told me. And I do. But I took pains to explain that I am not mimicking the speech of Hollywood and TV. Rather, the entertainment world is mimicking my accent; the flat, neutral tones of the Midwest, particularly northern Ohio, Indiana and Michigan. When British actors, such as Kate Winslet and Alan Cumming, play Americans in film, this is the accent they adopt.

I have lived in Chicago half my life, but I still wince every time the actress and talk show host Bonnie Hunt says the word, "mom." The corners of her mouth are in danger of touching her ears! We have a lovely respite worker these days; a native Chicagoan, he sounds exactly like one of the SNL Superfans with "da Bears, dose Bears, dem Bears." Or this particular Chicago locution, "dey did!"

I plan to continue saying "pajamas" with the "a" as in awful, not as in apple, and "roof" with the same vowel sound as "foot." If this accent is good enough for Dave Letterman and Drew Carey, it's good enough for me. (see below.)

Everyone Wants To Talk Like Us.

. . . somewhere in the middle everything levels out into a crisp non-accented cadence that is as clear as the words on this screen. In fact, the Ohio accent is the basis of the accent taught to newscasters. Newscasters on the televisual machine, meaning: the Ohio accent is so bland that you wouldn't even know it if you heard it because there's nothing to hear except the words, man. The words.

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