Blowing Water

Your accent says a lot about you. Maybe more than you’d like

In a globalised world, and especially in a cosmopolitan city like Hong Kong, the way a person talks is an integral part of their identity

PUBLISHED : Monday, 27 August, 2018, 4:46pm
UPDATED : Monday, 27 August, 2018, 10:25pm

“You have an interesting accent. Where are you from?”

Many of us have been asked this question, especially when travelling abroad. So, what does your accent say about you? And what does it mean to have a certain accent?

By definition, an accent is the manner of pronunciation specific to people who come from a certain place; it also reflects the locality in which its speakers reside as well as their socioeconomic status.

Some linguists believe people of different ethnic backgrounds talk, exclaim, grumble, and even laugh in different ways, all of which are influenced by our accents. Some experts even say babies of different nationalities have accented cries.

It may sound far-fetched but linguistic experts say accents are not the privilege of humankind, as animals make noises with different “accents”, which are influenced by the region they live in and how other animals of the same species in their locality sound.

Accents mark people out. So, like it or not, we carry our accents like a name badge allowing others to easily identify us. That’s why some people go the extra mile to tone down or “posh up” their accents.

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But can we change or disguise our native accents?

Some experts believe we can, because accents are relatively malleable and are not even fixed in adulthood. And of course, it varies from person to person, depending on the individual’s linguistic ability.

But I have come across many overseas-educated Chinese who, after spending a few years abroad, speak English with what sounds like a foreign accent, which may be anything from American, British or Canadian. They may be able to speak near-perfect American-, British- or Canadian-accented English, but when they panic or find themselves in a state of shock, they tend to revert to their native accent.

Accents are an integral part of an individual’s identity, especially in today’s globalised world and in cosmopolitan cities like Hong Kong. They have become an essential part of our identity, that affects our intangible “appearance” in terms of social categorisation and also our self-perception.

Whether we are born with a certain accent or have our accent influenced by our upbringing, or have it transformed to become stronger or weaker, the way we articulate can tell the story about us too.

What about a fluid accent, is it becoming more common due to globalisation and cross-lingual friendships and relationships?

Going back to the point of people trying to tone down or posh up their accent to blend in, they do this because sometimes accents can be subject to subtle forms of prejudice.

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For example, people who speak in a flawless received-pronunciation (RP) British accent, commonly known as the queen’s English, are considered posh and educated because it is perceived as the accent of the wealthy elite, which essentially means the powerful and privileged.

For years, the BBC would only hire people who spoke with the RP accent to host its programmes. As a result, the BBC accent became synonymous with the queen’s English and was considered authoritative, trusted and educated.

However, this accent has fallen out of fashion as it has been perceived to be inaccessible to most people. In fact, more regional accents, such as those from the north of England, have come into fashion and are viewed as more approachable.

As the world has become globalised, English, as an international language, has evolved, making it less important to have native-speaker accents.

Today, the BBC not only allows, but even encourages, a wide range of regional and foreign accents on its broadcasts as a show of pride that it represents a hugely diverse audience and also tries to attract a wider audience worldwide.

The BBC may have demonstrated a fairer and more egalitarian attitude, but unfortunately the bias is still prevalent the world over. Our accents open a window into our personal and social backgrounds and sadly they also let in biases.

Accents add colours and bring varieties to languages. An accent is a road map of your life, from birth and childhood, to adolescence and adulthood.

For those who are quick to judge a person based on their accent, either intentionally or not, imagine how bland the world would become if speech were monotonous, human populations without cultural diversity, and rainbows monochromatic

For years, my daughter had something of an American accent (thanks to endless hours glued to Cartoon Network after school). Since moving to Britain more than nine years ago, her accent has become noticeably more British, but I still pick up hints of her Americanised accent in certain words.

However, she sometimes feels frustrated by how much her accent gives away, as people in Britain can tell she didn’t grow up there while people outside the UK think she is a Londoner.

While she finds this extremely frustrating, I tell her that it is a blessing because it tells a story of her international roots. She is Eurasian, born and raised in Hong Kong, has been educated in various international schools, has close friends who were schooled in Canada and the US, and has lived in the UK since she was 16.

However mixed her background is, it is not unique to Hong Kong, a proud melting pot of cultures and heritages. Everyone has a story and they should share it loudly and proudly.

For those who are quick to judge a person based on their accent, either intentionally or not, imagine how bland the world would become if speech were monotonous, human populations without cultural diversity, and rainbows monochromatic.

Luisa Tam is a senior editor at the Post