Monday, January 05, 2004

A couple of thoughts on languages and accents.

When I was a child, my next door neighbour was an old, very self-reliant Scottish woman named Mrs Shepherd. (I still don't know what her first name was). Although she was invariably kind to me and to my brother and sister, she was very severe in a Scottish Presbyterian sort of way. And although she must have lived in Australia for something like 50 years, she also spoke with an incredibly strong Scottish accent. (I think she may have come from Inverness, but I am not sure). I remember her now and I think that she was more Scottish than anyone in Scotland could possibly be, but of course when I was seven I didn't think of it this way. These were not national characteristics. They were just the characteristics of Mrs Shepherd.

Which is why, when I was older and actually visited Scotland, I found the Scottish accent to be very familiar, but in some ways disconcerting. Regular people spoke with Scottish accents. Children spoke with Scottish accents. (That was the weird part, actually, when my mind assumed that Scottish accents were merely the accents of white haired 75 year old women). Beautiful young women spoke with Scottish accents. (That story is longer and sadder, and I am not going into it right now). The idea that the Scottish accent was an accent spoken by real people who went about their ordinary lives with it was something that deep down my mind took a little while to get used to.

Similarly, in 1992 I visisted France from the first time. In the same way, people in France actually went about their lives in French. They spoke to one another in French all the time, when they went to the supermarket, when they were complaining about poor postal service, and when they were insulting people. I was at least familiar with the sound of the French language, as my parents had taken me to see many French movies when I was a child and I continued to go to see them from time time time as an adult. (I am not especially fond of recent French cinema, however). When I went to France, my subconsciousness again had difficulty getting used to the idea that this was a real language used by everyone in France, and not just a language used for making pretentious movies.

Thirdly, in 1999 I went on a trip to the United States. I got on a flight from Chicago to New Orleans. When I got on the plane, I heard an accent that was extremely familiar to me, that I can only describe as the accent of blues singers. Of course, music from Louisiana is internationally famous (for the simple reason that it is often wonderful), and I had often heard people sing, and appear on TV chat shows the like in this accent. (I think that one reason I was familiar with the accent is both that it is a very distinctive accent and it is an intensely musical and charming accent to my ears, and a lot of people feel the same way. Of course, when I got on the plane I heard this accent coming from various directions around me. The stewardess was attempting to find a seat with an empty space next to it for an enormous black guy who looked like a blues singer (and probably was a blues singer) who spoke with the accent in question and was having a little difficulty fitting in one seat.

And what can I say. I went to New Orleans, met up with a friend, we went out to a club and listened to some live music, I drank some whiskey, and I generally had a marvellous time. The accent was part of the charm of the place, and it went with the music. Although I again found that an accent I had been familiar with in a small context was widely spoken, it somehow wasn't disconcerting this time. It was somehow comfortable. Perhaps it was that the "blues singer" accent is a minority accent even in New Orleans. Or perhaps it is that the accent is one associated with terrific music, and being in a place that the accents signalled was obviously the home of that music was a different experience to the other two. I'm not sure. It's emotional thing, and as Sherlock Holmes said, "all that is emotional is opposed to that cold reason that I hold above all things". Well, not exactly. It just felt like a good quote somehow.

And I am rambling.

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