One of Walt's favorite stories from our trips concerns a trip we took to Paris, for the day. We were traveling with two British friends and taking the chunnel, that high-speed train that goes from London to Paris in a snap. I don't really like riding San Francisco's BART train under the bay for the few minutes it takes to get from the East Bay to San Franciscos and I definitely was not looking forward to being under the English Channel for 20 minutes, but the Eurostar is very smart. As soon as the train plunges into the tunnel, they bring out the snack cart and you are so busy watching what is going on the the snack cart, deciding whether to have a snack or not, and then eating your snack that before you realize how much water is around you, you are on dry land again.
We got to the Pompidou Center and discovered that it had a cyber cafe, so before we hit the streets of Paris, we had to check and send e-mail.
We did lots of things that day, including walking down the steps of the Eiffel Tower and a tour of Notre Dame Cathedral. The Cathedral was closed when we first got there and we sat outside waiting for it to open. While we were there, I was looking at all the vendor carts and saw one that was selling berets and sent Walt over to buy one for Marta, who loves hats.
Walt bought the hat and came back to the three of us waiting, me and our two women friends from England and he said "That girl spoke English without an accent." Sian looked at him and in her clearest British accent asked, "without what kind of accent?"
Accents are funny. If everybody around you speaks the same way and then someone from somewhere else comes in, you say that he or she has an accent. I'm from California and I think that anybody who speaks anything other than Californian has an accent.
Jon Carroll, in a recent column in the San Francisco Chronicle addressed the subject of accents. I found part of it interesting in that he says he was born and raised in California. Yet he writes:
The website GoToQuiz has a provocative new quiz titled "What American Accent Do You Have?" For instance, do you think that "marry," "Mary" and "merry" are all pronounced the same or differently?
(FWIW, I tried to find that quiz on GoToQuiz and could not)
What I found interesting about this is that he says that
To me, they're all pronounced differently, but apparently not to every American. I can kind of see that "Mary" and "marry" sound the same, but "merry" is a distinctly different vowel sound. And the "a" in "Mary" is slightly broader than the one in "marry," to my ear.
I can't see that "Mary" and "marry" sound the same at all. To my ear, "Mary" sounds like "merry" and "marry" rhymes with "Harry."
How about you? Do you pronounce these words different from each other:
Don and dawn
stock and stalk
collar and caller
stock and stalk
collar and caller
The business of accents is really strange. There are people that I know quite well (and whom I don't wish to embarrass by mentioning specifics) who hear the same word that I do and yet pronounce it completely different from the way I pronounce it. Are they right? Am I right? (and does it matter?)
I can usually pick up a midwest twang and of course a southern accent...but there are differences in accents from different parts of the south. I can hear the difference, but can't geographically place them because I just don't hear accents from different states often enough. There was a time when I could pick up the accent of someone who was raised in the South of Market area of San Francisco.
When it comes to foreign languages, I am not as good now as I was during our foreign student days, but I like to try to guess what part of the world someone is from by how they speak English...or by eavesdropping when they are speaking their own language. I have had people astonished when I pick up their Brasilian accent effortlessly because most people think their native language is Spanish. But the two are quite different. If they are speaking Portuguese I can identify a Rio vs. a Sao Paulo accent (that's quite easy since the Rio accent is "softer" than a Sao Paulo). I'm still trying to figure out how to immediately differentiate between Australian and South African accents, but I can place someone from Melbourne as different from Perth. I couldn't tell you what the difference is, but I can hear it when they speak. (Maybe not so much now that I don't have anybody in Australia to talk to.)
Walt is hopeless in identifying a foreign accent. He doesn't hear the subtleties that seem so blatantly obvious to me. But then I can't add 2 and 2 and come up with the same answer twice in a row, so we each have our own strengths.
I find accents endlessly fascinating. Maybe that's why I am an inveterate eavesdropper and not so much a good conversationalist!