Post 162

Politically Incorrect: Reflections on Accents

English is a nice language. It’s got a lot of words.

It is widely known and countries that have a primary language other than English often have a population that is quite familiar with English as its favorite most useful second language.

This post is going to be about the different accents used when speaking English.

Spoken English sounds very different in different parts of the world. The English you hear spoken in Bangkok is different than the English you hear spoken in Santiago or in Ottawa or in Edinburgh.

A person’s ability to speak English is affected by several factors. One factor is that person’s mother tongue. If a person’s first language does not have a “th” sound, for instance, then it will be difficult, initially, to say English words that contain the “th” sound. Some Asian languages have a blended r-l sound, so it is difficult for those speakers to make a clear “r” sound or a clear “l” sound. They always mix in a little of the other letter.

On the other hand, if your first language has flourishes that do not occur in English, you may tend to import the flourish with the letter. Here I am thinking of the rolled “r” which is common in many languages. When a speaker from France sees the letter “r,” he is tempted to roll it. Mind you, it sounds rather nice.

When those from other countries arrive in Canada, their accent will often be quite heavy. In other words, you need to listen to only a sentence or two to realize that this person has only recently arrived on Canadian soil. If you live in a larger urban centre, it is common to meet many people who speak English with a non-Canadian accent.

This post is going to become less and less politically correct as it progresses.

Accent on English: Where Blogger Actually Has the Nerve to Comment on Accents of the World

I like some accents more than others. I like the way English sounds when spoken with a Polish accent, a Russian accent and a Ukrainian accent. Five stars.

Don’t you think all music teachers should have eastern European accents?

I also like the French accent. Everyone knows how devastatingly romantic it sounds, so soft and smooth. English spoken with an Italian or Spanish accent also sounds very nice. Four and a half stars.

I haven’t heard all the accents in the world, of course, and so my list is very incomplete. The Bulgarian and Portuguese accents sound to me not entirely different from those I mention above. Come to think of it, I probably like the way English sounds when spoken by those from any of the European nations. Four and a half stars for all of them, let’s say. I have come to appreciate the sound of the Irish version of English too. It rolls like the hills of Ireland. The language itself has a melody and a sense of humour, as if the first speakers of it were having a very fun time inventing it. Scottish English takes a little getting used to, but I think I could.

I also like the slight change in word order that occurs when English is spoken by Europeans. I find it entirely pleasant.

I don’t like the South American accents quite as much, but they have their own charm. They are more open and sunny and have a lot of verve, but they don’t have that waltzy feeling. Their exoticism is more fresh — not so Old World. I’d give them four stars.

I don’t like the Australian or New Zealand accents quite as much either. And I find the accent of those from the country of South Africa difficult to understand. I’d give these all three stars.

I generally don’t like Asian and African accents. English, when spoken by someone whose mother-tongue is Chinese, for example, can sound harsh and choppy. The African version of English is also often hard to understand, but I can’t put my finger on what makes it sound blurry to me. As for the Indian accent, I find that sometimes it sounds, to my ears, too loop-dee-loop-dee with the emphasis in unexpected places, but at other times, it sounds musical. So these accents can range from four down to one, depending on how difficult they are to understand.

What (Not) to Do When Your Accent is Different From Those Around You

Upon arriving in Canada, the immigrant’s accent begins to fade away and be replaced by the Canadian version. The speed of the change varies, depending on the amount of interaction the immigrant has with other Canadians.

It is a process that is quite natural. We all tend to absorb the accents of the speakers around us. We adapt, both deliberately and unconsciously. That’s good, even if you have a five-star accent from southern Greece. It’s generally quite painless.

But what I do find somewhat painful is hearing the Mass readings delivered by someone with a thick accent. It’s a big responsibility to do the readings, and when the congregation can’t make heads or tails of the Letter to the Colossians, you wonder whether there should be any qualifications for readers at Mass to be understandable in the local language.

After all, the local news station wouldn’t allow the weather report to be delivered with any accent that isn’t completely understandable, and we would scratch our heads in stunned disbelief if we heard the commentator for the hockey game speaking with a thick Swedish or Singaporean accent.

So why do we act like it really doesn’t matter how intelligible the readers are for the Mass?

Readers and cantors for Mass should be easy to understand, end of story. If someone is eager to volunteer but cannot be easily and completely understood, then she should choose a different ministry. Be an usher. Be a minister of Communion. Be an acolyte. But please: don’t read. Not yet.

Readers should be clearly understandable to the congregation because it’s a service — it’s not an opportunity to shine.


Priests: Imports and Exports

And on this note, I actually oppose the worldwide movement and migration of priests. I don’t think it’s right for priests to leave their homelands to be transplanted elsewhere. At minimum, I would say that it shouldn’t be happening to the extent that it currently is. My thought is that something which began as a good missionary impulse has now gotten quite out of hand.

If country A isn’t generating enough priests, then let country A deal with the shortfall; don’t import priests from country B as if country B is a stop-gap supplier.

Why does Canada get to import priests from Nigeria, Poland and the Philippines in the same way it imports everything else? These good men are the treasures of these countries, and yet we take them so easily?

Isn’t it the case that they could be put to very good use in their countries of origin? Besides, I dare say that they would be more effective when they are anchored in amongst friends, neighbours, and family members. Their energies would not be spent on adapting to a foreign language and culture. When they arrive in a foreign nation, they are in charge of a parish which has challenges that are daunting for anyone, let alone someone who is so easily dismissed as an outsider. From what I can tell, people who are paid to work in parish offices tend to close ranks against priests whom they view as different or difficult to control. In general, I think that the parish office environment is usually toxic because workers are expected to be holy and selfless but really they are there for the money. I wouldn’t count on such people to be empathetic towards the confused new priest who spends hours upon hours redrafting his homily, hoping to be able to pronounce all the words for his new flock.

It’s just not ideal. That’s all I’m saying.

As for the flock, they aren’t as appreciative as they could be of the sacrifices made by their new shepherd. Some are genuinely friendly to the new priest, some are falsely friendly, and some are entirely cold, but the vast majority are just finding that here’s another priest whose homily they cannot quite follow, because they can’t understand the words when spoken with that unfamiliar accent.

One of the worst accents I have ever heard was from a priest who was originally from Poland but who learned English in Scotland and then ultimately wound up in Canada. Few could understand a word that he said. But put that same priest back in Poland, and every riddle would be solved; every line would make sense.

As for those priests already relocated and swimming upstream, my advice would be to focus on helping the parishioners with your ideas and words. Too many foreign-language priests tend to make up for their English language deficiency by making their homilies formal as well as long. They seem to be eager to prove that their intellects are in full force and effect, and the congregation becomes bleary-eyed as the paragraphs stretch and the pages turn.

It’s not the way. Think and pray about what the congregation needs to hear right now, and then God will inspire you. Get straight to the point; the target is the heart and mind of the parishioner. If you are direct and your intentions are good, then language barriers will fall away: instead of being a hindrance to understanding, your accent will add flair to the message.

That English Accent

My least favorite accent, on Canadian soil, is the English accent, believe it or not.

It’s an accent which I find entirely fine in England. Chesterton had an English accent, and so did some of my ancestors.

Here in Canada, however, I have noticed the strangest phenomenon. I find it to be so often the case that those with English accents never lose them. Their accents don’t soften and blend into the Canadian. Long after the accent of the German, the Chilean, and even the Vietnamese have mellowed, the English person sounds like he arrived the day before yesterday.

So my theory is that something different is happening, and indeed, here is my charge: I think that far too many immigrants from England have an attitude about their accent, and the attitude is one of superiority. It seems to me that they most definitely don’t want to sound like the Canadians around them, ever. Their dislike of the Canadian accent drives their determination to keep their English one. It’s an accent that, to me, suggests an intention to stay aloof, to stay ‘better,’ and of course, that’s worse.