Voices and Accents

I heard a voice this morning that made  me realize that there was an interesting way of communicating in the Korean culture I hadn’t told you about. When I was growing up, for several years I had an English accent.  I inherited that accent by accident, but what these people do is no accident. I have no idea when my accent began, but they know they are doing this.  We lived in England. I was a little girl, and I just melded into my surroundings and became English, but I was American.  I didn’t know what it meant to be American.  It has influenced the way I talk my whole life even though I don’t think I speak with a British accent now. These people make a conscious effort to speak the way they speak. It is cultural, but they know when they do it. They are not just melding like I was.

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When we left England, we were in Morocco. I was attending an embassy school and my teacher was an American.  I was drawn to the British students, not the Americans. I felt more comfortable around the British students.  My dad really didn’t like my British accent and talked hard to me about it.  I was embarrassed because I sounded British, but I knew I was American. I didn’t know that many Americans, but my teacher was American, so I tried to copy her accent to make my dad happy.  What the Koreans do I am talking about do it to make themselves more appealing to the person listening.

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Later, when I was in Oklahoma in middle school, I heard the Okies elongating their vowels. At first, it sounded so strange to me, and all I wanted to do was to hear a British accent. They sounded so foreign and drove my ears crazy.  After that, I became fascinated and listened to them, but I couldn’t give up who I was and begin trying to speak like them.  It just seemed too odd. I wanted to be true to myself and who I was, to feel comfortable with who I was.

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When we moved to California when I was in high school, people who knew I had moved there from Oklahoma made fun of me.  They would call out “ya’ll” to me, but I never used the word ya’ll.  I didn’t let myself speak with the accent from Oklahoma because it was just too strange to me. Many of the people in California sounded to me like they had a very generic accent, but some of them sounded like they were whining when they spoke. They sounded a little more normal than the people in Oklahoma, but both were just accents that they had learned from the time they were small just like I had learned that British accent, innately. However, the thing the Koreans are doing, even though it is cultural, it is not innate.

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By the time I was in college, my accent was unique, but not unique at all.  A Linguistics teacher bragged that she could tell where each student was from by listening to them speak. We were living in Oklahoma City, and she said she could almost tell us which block we lived on in Oklahoma City by the way we spoke.  She went around and listened to each student and was able to place where they were from and even what part of the city they were from. When she got to me, she was completely stumped.  I was the only one in the class that she couldn’t tell where I was from.  This strange way of speaking in Korea doesn’t tell you where they are from. It tells you they are wanting to be loved by the person they are speaking to.

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Another English professor called my English “College American English.”  He said I sounded like the people on the news broadcasters.  That British accent remained even though I left English, but it wasn’t completely British.  However, a friend said to me that sometimes she still heard it.  When I acted, I got the parts of someone speaking with a British accent because finally, I could really turn it on or off if I wanted. It is hard to change an accent, but it is easy to change your manner of speaking like I heard this morning.

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When I traveled in Mexico, I noticed something about the way the Mexican women spoke.  If you were having a conversation with them and they were trying to explain something, their voice seemed to get higher and higher the more they talked.  It was a cultural thing, but not an accent. It was like what I heard this morning, but it conveyed emotion rather than trying to control how the person they were speaking to looked at them.

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When I lived in Nigeria, they were something else to talk to.  Each person you talked to had a slightly different accent.  They were all speaking English with influence from their original tribal languages, but with a British accent.  The government was working at mixing the tribes and sent all the students to one high school from all different tribes. Initially, even though they were speaking English, I had to really concentrate when I heard them speak, but after a while it got easier. However, they did something else.  When they spoke, it was like many of them were sparring with one another, but they weren’t mad.

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When we were on the way to Nigeria, we had stopped in London.  My husband was from the Ohio Valley in the U. S.  In the Ohio Valley, there are many different accents.  Some pronounce their “o’s”  absolutely strange and do what I call rounding them.  Some sound like a baby when they talk.  Others have another accent that does neither, but sounds like English isn’t their first language, like their first language must be Swedish or something.  My husband’s accent was like the third one.  We encountered a woman from Wales in the London subway.  When I was in England, I had always heard about people from Wales. People spoke as if they spoke a foreign language, but they spoke English.  When the lady spoke, I understood her perfectly. However, my husband couldn’t understand her, and she couldn’t understand him.  I ended up translating between American Ohio Valley English and English from Wales England. The way people speak can get very interesting, and even funny.

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I went to graduate school in Texas.  One of my professors and one of the students talked to me because I didn’t use a southern accent. They didn’t quite know what kind of accent I had, but they said people would feel more comfortable if I would stop using the “-ing” endings and drop that “g.” I hadn’t even thought about it.  I was just speaking the way I always spoke. The Koreans who speak the way I am talking about haven’t always spoken the way they speak when they do this, and the next time you talk to them, they may not speak that way again.

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When I was in Romania at the university, there was a professor from Yorkshire, England.  He and I realized that our accents were very much a like. However, I also knew a plumber in Romania from Yorkshire, England. He had a really thick accent that made it so I had to listen closely when he spoke. He dropped all his “h’s”.  It took time for me to get used to the way he spoke, and after that I didn’t have to listen so hard to understand him.  The professor from Yorkshire told me he used to speak like him.  He said everyone in Yorkshire speaks like him, but when they go to the university in England, they clean their English up, and they begin speaking a standard English.  They strange thing the Koreans do has nothing to do with accent, nothing to do with status, but to do with controlling the way the person you are talking to looks at you.

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Also in Romania, I knew an old Romanian man whose way of speaking will always be with me.  He didn’t speak English. He spoke Romanian.  His intonation was different from other Romanians.  His intonation made him seem like a very kind grandfather lovingly telling a story to a grandchild whenever he spoke to anyone.  I actually really appreciated the way he spoke, but the thing these Koreans do I find absolutely silly.

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I have already blogged about the way some Koreans speak with no intonation and speak like machine guns.  However, I heard something this morning that reminded me of a paper a Korean student once wrote. She said that Koreans have a tendency to want to sound like babies when they speak.  In Korean, they think it is cute, even men speak this way sometimes, but she had learned that when they tried that in English, they sounded silly, and they didn’t get the same reaction out of the English speakers that they got out of the Koreans when they spoke that way in Korean.  This woman I heard today was actually leading a prayer, and she was talking to God as if she were a baby in Korean. This is what I have been talking about.  They talk like a baby on purpose!  I was so surprised to hear her talk that way in a prayer!  I have a friend that has been my friend for a long time.  When she had a baby, all of a sudden, I realized she had changed and was talking that way.  They speak this way on purpose. It is not an accent like my British accent that seems to pop up now and then all the way through my life. It is a conscious effort to sound like a baby because they think it makes them cute.

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