Friday, August 7, 2009

My On-and-Off Australian Accent

Sorry I've been so quiet. I've been honing my Australian accent. Of course, I've also spent a week without the internet, which explains some things.

Whenever I'm in Australia, I find myself picking up an Australian accent. But it's interesting - this time, the tendency wasn't so strong as it has been in the past. Not like the time when I was 15 and by noon I couldn't remember what I sounded like before.

The difference, I think, is my kids. This time, I was talking to them a lot, and they don't tend to pick up the accent the way I do. My son likes to learn to say things in the Australian way, but he doesn't fall into it by accident. And my daughter doesn't pick it up at all (yet), though she understands it perfectly. I'm not sure when the tendency to pick up accents begins, but it seems to me there's still a possibility that they may pick it up later. I'll just have to wait and see.

Whether you pick up an accent or not has something to do with social alignment. I remember when I first came here, a single girl dating my soon-to-be-husband - I really felt silly not talking like everyone else. I got a lot of curiosity about myself, and was constantly being asked to act as a spokesperson for the US. People would bring up all the things they disliked about the US, and ask me to defend them, whether they had anything to do with my own behaviors and belief system at all. I took advantage of my ability to pick up accents and once actually launched into Australian for a full minute so as not to make myself look like a fool when I missed a train.

Now, though, I think it's a little unfair of me to try so hard to speak like an Australian. My kids are used to me speaking the way I do, and though their dad speaks Aussie (pronounced: ozzy), I do wonder if they think I'm being silly if I fall into the accent. Also, I know that people perceive group membership through accent a great deal, and I don't want the kids to get the idea that I'm not standing with them. This wouldn't of course be something they'd be consciously aware of, but they could still be more uncomfortable as a result of it. In fact, I haven't thought much about the issue during this trip - it only occurred to me this afternoon to look at my own linguistic behavior and ask myself why I'd done what I did.

Accents and judgments of social alignment are very closely linked. It's been interesting to watch this in myself.

I'm coming back to the US on Sunday, so I'm hoping to post again tomorrow... Jetlag could slow me down considerably once I'm back, but I'll be back to my regular routine as soon as I can make it.


  1. I lived in England for three years. Mostly, of course, I was easily identifiable as an American by my accent. However, sometimes people weren't sure and had to ask if I were British or American. And one memorable evening someone asked how long I'd lived In America and why I'd moved there. That is to say, I sounded to this person like a Brit who'd spent some time in America, *not* like an American who'd spent some time in Britain.

    Accent has to do with voice and pronunciation. But class and regional differences also include differences in word choice. Both are important if you, well, want to pass. Steriotypically, for instance, Ausies say G'dai while Yanks say Hi. You can get in trouble using the wrong dialect or regional/class idiom. Some years ago a friend who grew up in Ireland told us of a near disasterous slip of just this kind. She was on an outing with her new American schoolmates. On the way back in the evening she said quite innocently, "That was good crack, wasn't it?" Her remark was met with horrified silence. She realized her mistake and explained that in Ireland, crack means fun. She was able to redeam herself, but it was a near thing.

  2. Over the years of my upbringing and adult life, I've picked up at three or four different Upper Midwestern accents. These accents will emerge now and then depending on the situation. For example, in Iowa I'll speak with my rural central Iowa accent. When talking to my wife's cousins in eastern Wisconsin, I'll fall into that accent. In more urbane settings I'll do a pretty good General American.

    The interesting part, however, is that this only happens when I'm not trying. When I consciously try to speak in other accents, it comes out all wrong, and I start to worry that people might think I'm making fun of them.