Thursday, 5 March 2015

Day 16: Accents

Accents are a distinguishing thing.

Patchwork and nuanced they hint at a back story, mottled and daubed with flecks of countries, conversations and circumstances we have known. It's through this inflection and intonation that we map the journeys of others, the rivers of speech patterns carving their way through both home soil and foreign lands.

Exposed to a new city for the first time accents become the gatekeeper to both existence and experience, at once possessing the unique ability to both alienate and ingratiate at any given moment. Schrödinger's acceptance.

Just today, in the space of 7-or-so short hours in Madrid I have found myself in conversation with an Italian-born Madrileño of 7 months who, upon learning we were Welsh and not English, happily regaled us with the story of his time spent in Burryport where none of the locals could understand his decidedly international accent, and quite frankly neither could he theirs. He commented at this point that in contrast he could very clearly understand us, and that we "spoke English very well."

It sounds obvious, but I think it takes a level of foreign language learning to become sympathetic to the plight of the foreign ear battling with the native tongue. You become unconsciously aware of that split-second between words, making sure to allow just enough time for translation and meaning to collide somewhere in the depths of the synapses. Instinctively you learn to look for and recognise that split-second flicker of approval and comprehension that flashes across the eyes and down to the corners of the mouth with a slight nod of the head, signalling for you to carry on the sentence. You become aware of your vocabulary, not so as to dumb down, but simply ensuring that you don't inadvertently default to the kind of linguistic riddles that we have such a bad habit of, like, falling in to.

There is always the argument for speaking as much of a native language as possible when travelling, but it can be a minefield.
Accent, intonation, speed, vocabulary, and even simply your own panicked brain can seem to conspire to leave you standing at the front of a queue of people, open-mouthed and silently floundering as you fail to process fast enough the simple question of whether or not you would like a bag.

Yeah, thanks for that.

Accents can conjure a whole host of emotions. When, far from home, your ear happens upon a familiar lilt, that easiest of conversations, the simplest of interactions, that mere acknowledgement can make all those miles feel that much shorter. Conversely, it can have you sidling down the nearest side street, denying any kind of connection to that most obnoxiously "other."

Accents are to speech as dynamics and articulation are to melody and music: the colour, intensity, and, well, je ne sais quoi that brings the bare bones of language to life.

After all, it's not what you say, it's how you say it.


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