Wednesday, 6 April 2016

Getting the Right Accent

There was a Twitter hashtag which did the rounds recently: #tweetjustyourvoice. The idea was to use record an audio of your voice with a visual that didn’t include your face, and then post it onto Twitter so that your communities of tweeps (Twitter folk) get to hear how you sound.

I would have probably continued on my merry way, happily ignorant of all things connected to this hashtag, except that it got embraced with gusto by the FridayPhrases community, with a certain FridayPhrases host (the very persuasive @AdeleSGray) inviting me to take part. If ever there was a hashtag designed to wallop me well out of my comfort zone, it was this one.

Why? Thank you for asking. There are several reasons.

You see, a few keywords that I would use to describe myself include: shy, introverted, self-deprecating and self-doubting. That’s not so unusual and it’s probably quite a standard combo that quite a few people would apply to themselves – maybe even more so amongst people who are writers.

But added to that, my voice has an unusual deep pitch. I’d love to be able to describe it as ‘husky’ because ‘husky’ has all sorts of wonderful connotations, including sounding sexy, beguiling and compelling… basically, a voice that washes over you like honey. Unfortunately, I could never use any of those adjectives to describe my voice – not while keeping a straight face anyway. To give you an idea about pitch, Sting (of The Police) and Perry Farrell (of Jane’s Addiction) (both males) have a higher singing register than me. Where other female participants in the hashtag were concerned about sounding too girlish, girlish is the last thing in the world that could ever be used to describe my voice.

As usually happens, I copped a bit of flak about my voice in school. This made me horribly self-conscious about it, and my self-consciousness gets regularly reinforced by the comments, double-takes and attention I've received since then. I should clarify that the comments aren’t necessarily unkind, but the fact that there are comments/ double-takes at all means I’m always painfully aware that my voice sounds different.

I think these two reasons are more than enough, thank you. But there is a third, and this is the one which needs context and explanation: I have an accent.

Sure, I hear you say, who doesn’t? Different regions have different accents. England has many recognisable regional accents – even to those of us who don’t live there. Internationally, there are different parts of the world with often instantly-recognisable English-speaking accents. Think: Australian-, French-, Indian-, Jamaican-, or South African-accented English. They’re usually recognisable and can be understood and placed.

English is my native language. It’s the one I think in, read and write in, work in, and one I dream in. But I speak it with an accent that is neither easily-placed, nor easily-explained.  

It’s due to a combo of factors. I was born in my Father’s native UK (I was born in Essex actually, which makes me the world’s most unlikely Essex girl), and I grew up from a young age in my Mother’s home island of Mauritius. From my toddling years onwards, I grew up speaking the languages spoken in Mauritius: Creole (the standard spoken lingua franca of Mauritius, which is French-based), French (which is the main formal language spoken there) and English (the official language which is the main language of education and politics, but which is rarely spoken on a daily basis). As a result of its history of colonisation, there are several more languages spoken in Mauritius, including Hindi, Bhojpuri and Tamil, among others.

English was the standard language we spoke inside the home, which was unusual in Mauritius. Most households, I imagine, would have spoken Creole, French or maybe Hindi. My Father is from the North of England, so for a long time, a lot of my pronunciation of words sounded North-of-England-ish. Ironic, given I’ve never been there!

So, my accent for a long time had a North-of-England English accent/pronunciation which combined with the prevalent prevailing Mauritian French pronunciation of certain words.

My French was/is passable. I’ve still got a lot of the vocab and grammar, and I like to think I’m fairly competent in it (especially after a bit of practice) but fluent speakers tell me I speak it with an English accent (as you do). Apparently, even when I was growing up in Mauritius, I spoke Creole with an accent. According to an Auntie, if you heard me chattering in Creole with a group of kids before you saw me, you could hear my accent. And this was a language I grew up speaking from the age of 2 or 3 onwards! (I stuck out visually too, but that’s another story).

When we came to Australia (I was 11-ish), I wasn’t one of those kids who could hear their accent, and who learnt how to change their accents like their shoes – where they could talk the heavily-accented English for the migrant home (in line with how their parents and elders spoke) and the Aussie-fied one that allowed them to blend-in flawlessly with the outside world. I’ve since met many people who all moved to Australia around the magic age of 11, and who all have perfect Aussie accents.

My problem was: I didn’t know how to hear the different elements in my accent. People would sometimes say they could hear the north-of-England accent; others claimed to hear the French. For a long, long time, I couldn’t hear either.

I’ve eventually learnt to identify the North-of-England in my pronunciations of words like ‘ask/fast/mad’, and the French in where I sometimes put the emphasis on certain syllables over others (such as ‘dev-lop’ instead of ‘de-vel-op’). Looking back, I suspect that part of the reason I could never hear my accent, was because there was a nice alignment between the languages I grew up with. French pronunciations of certain, short ‘ah’ sounds connect cleanly and beautifully to the short ‘ah’ in the North-of-England ‘past’. And this carries on into short ‘ah’ sounds that get used in Creole.

Nowadays, I’m still working on including a self-conscious Australian-esque twang into my accent, but I don’t know how successful or readily recognisable it is. The Aussie-fied pronunciation of words can often sound contrived, awkward and self-conscious in my mouth. ‘Pa-a-ar-st’ rather than ‘past’ still sounds overly contrived in my mouth. Don’t get me started on the “o” and “oo” sounds – I still can’t say those with an Aussie-fied accent because I sound so unconvincing, even to my own ears! The “o” sounds I speak are still very French-ified, I think.

Tweeps who listened to my audio tweet would be able to tell me whether my accent sounded convincingly Aussie or not! But I already know the answer: nope!

Hubs recently showed me a YouTube clip about accents and Aussie versus American pronunciation. Of course, I can't find that particular clip now. However, they used the phrase: "Ask the master to pass the banana" to illustrate the difference in 'a' sounds.

I had a couple of attempts at saying the line.

Attempt 1: Mauritius me (what I think of as my Mauritius childhood pronunciation, but it doesn’t sound natural for me to say it this way any more).

Attempt 2:  Hybrid/ halfway/ in-between attempts 1 and 3 (this sounds much more natural as to how I think I would have said it as a kid, but this may be because it's halfway to how I would say it now, and so feels more comfortable…) Actually, if I think about it, this is probably also how I would speak English in Mauritius now, to ensure the locals understand my English. At times of stress, these hybrid pronunciations can slip out unintentionally.

Attempt 3: How I would unthinkingly say it now, first go, without thinking too much about it. My default ‘naturalised’ accent, in my comfort zone. Which, ironically enough, probably doesn’t sound Aussie at all! 

And so, this is the not-so-straightforward third reason for my discomfort with sharing a disembodied voice. My accent only needs a few hundred words of contextualising information!  

Although, I will quickly add: don’t get me wrong. I actually like my mangled accent; it’s a perfect combo of the different strands of my identity.

But, if I do have a ‘natural’ accent, then your guess is as good as mine as to what it is! As this post suggests, I’m still working on it.


Larysia said...

Your voice is rich with character! You should definitely be proud of it and the words it can bring to life.

Take care!

Larysia said...

Your voice is rich with character! You should definitely be proud of it and the words it can bring to life.

Take care!

Anonymous said...

I liked your voice. And agree with Larysia. (As you know, I was challenged to tweet with a British accent - which was horrid. Also, there are so many different accents in the UK. Which do people think of as "British?") I've always wondered what people who live outside the US think an "American" accent is.

ReeD with a Bee said...

Thank you Lovely Larysia!! I'm going to quote you to myself whenever I need a reminder! Thank you :)

ReeD with a Bee said...

Thank you kind Sarah!! :) I tend to think of "British" = what you hear on the BBC, but of course there are many more regional, non-BBC-sounding accents too! "American" to me = that curling "r" sound that you guys use! ;) But again, thanks to US media, most people would probably be aware of the US' different regional accents. Australia's got its share of regional accents too, but probably MUCH less recognised! :)