Le cul entre les deux chaises

An American Spaniard in France or: How I Learned to Make an Ass of Myself in Three Cultures

What’s in an accent?


The short answer is: a lot. To a language connoisseur¹ like moi, an accent is both something to emulate (as when learning a new language) and something which provides an immense amount of data about a person.

When I open my mouth and speak in English, it’s clearly with an American accent, but it’s not the accent of the people I grew up around. My BFF has a strong Midwestern way-a-talkin’, but I never picked it up. Additionally, people trained in elocution have a hard time pinning down where I’m from.

This is just one of the things I think about a lot, but then the Times went and ran a story about the completion of the Regional Dictionary this past week. As it’s about two of my favorite things, reference books and the ways people speak, I had to check it out. It was totally fascinating, but also bewildering. It turns out that I use the North Midland dialect which partly fits, as I grew up in the region, but I do fall into the cot-caught merger (pronounce both words the same) which most of my peers did not.

In the end, all of this works out in my favor. I can name most American accents with a pretty high degree of accuracy, but not many people can tell mine.

In Spanish, I have a way of speaking that the Iberians sometimes identify as “de fuera” [from outside, i.e. not local] but they’ll guess that I’m from another region or maybe Italy. Conversely, I can tell which part of the Spanish-speaking world someone is from as well as point out a Catalan, a Madrileño or a Galician.

In France, I haven’t gotten anywhere as good yet, though in groups of three or more, I can tell who isn’t local. My own accent is apparently even harder to trace than in Spain, which makes me feel like I’m somehow pulling a fast one on everyone. People here seem a little more aware of the outside world so when they look at me, they have one idea about my nationality, but when I speak and say things like, “yeah” which they hear as ja (German), they get really confused which is all part of my master plan.

¹In English, we say connoisseur, since the word has been in use since the French first came into contact with the Anglo-Saxons. In modern France, they say connaisseur, since the verb root (connaître, to know) is now conjugated –ais instead of –ois.


Author: le cul en rows

I'm an American Spaniard, living in France. I like to tell stories.

6 thoughts on “What’s in an accent?

  1. Hey. I feel like I can realte to a lot of the same things as you. I’m in France right now for one year to learn French. I speak with a strong Norwegian accent. Honestly, it is something that bothers me, and I am constantly aware of my accent.

    • Cat, you shouldn’t let your accent bother you! Remember that you’re making an effort to communicate with people in their own language. If they make you self-conscious, screw ’em. I bet whoever you’re in contact with can’t speak Norwegian. Besides, in most places (except Italy where people can be real assholes), if someone hears you struggling to speak with them, they’ll help you out. As they say where you’re from (I hope) mot! (See? I tried and maybe failed, but if I’m right, I learned a new word today!)

      • Thank you! And yes, you have learnt a new word.
        In the beginning my accent didn’t make me self-conscious. However, now that I feel like I’m getting somewhere with my French it does get me down when people don’t seem to understand what I say because of my accent.

      • Maybe you should adopt my motto: don’t let the bastards drag you down. I really think that people that make others feel unwelcome only for not speaking just like them are the worst. I’ve found that they’re usually the least-educated and -traveled, so they have no right to look down on you, a person who’s moved to another country to learn all about them.

      • I think I will adopt your motto!
        And yes, your right.

  2. Thanks for the article — it’s great to see the book’s finally been finished.

    I have “soft” American accent from living outside the States for 5+ years (at various times — right now I’m in a 4-years-and-counting stint), and it was funny to hear ‘This American Life’s’ episode at The Golden Apple in Chicago, where I lived for four years. I definitely am thankful I don’t sound like a Chicagoan, but rather at mixture of my father’s/grandmother’s Northern Illinois accent and my mother’s Southern Midland Dialect accent.

    One of my favorite things, though, is when people think I’m Irish. Actual Irish and British people have thought that, which makes up for me sometimes thinking Irish people are Americans. The accents are sometimes very similar if only 1-2 sentences are said.

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