Friday, 5 July 2013

I'm On A Roll.............

3 today. It's raining and I can't play outside.

One thing I remarked on in passing, on the previous blog, I want to go into in a bit more depth.

Many of us when discussing language indulge in a bit of gentle teasing with people we know well over our use of language. This is fine so long as you do know the person can take it, and it doesn't go too far. Same applies with all teasing. Everybody has a limit with teasing, and that limit varies according to who is teasing, and so on.

When my older daughter was very small, about two, we used to tease her very gently, by imitating her tiny voice. She would get very annoyed, and put her hands on her hips, spitting venom: "I DO NOT HAVE A FUNNY LITTLE VOICE!" which of course came out in her funny little voice, and caused more mirth. We still remind her of that, and she still gives us a look with knives in her eyes.

So a little caution is necessary. I have taken a lot of teasing over my English accent by North American friends, over the years, and it doesn't bother me. But that doesn't mean you can do it to everyone, and it also doesn't mean you can do it to anyone to an excessive level. It does get tedious after a while.

But most of all, it's annoying when somebody imitates you and gets it wrong. I choose to roll my eyes, but I wonder if anyone remembers this:

I have had to withstand people doing that at parties at me. I tend to feel sorry for them, so one smiles, and moves on, but it isn't funny, because it's pathetic. At least if you are going to be "funny" about the way somebody speaks, get it right.

Here's the thing. There is no right or wrong way to speak, with regard to accents. There is no hierarchy of accents. Your accent is your accent. Saying it is wrong is like saying your face is wrong.

Ah, you say, but people wear make-up or have surgery even, because they don't like their face. Quite so, and power to them, but that's individual choice. Plenty of people deliberately cultivate an accent they prefer too, and again, that's a matter of choice. It's not for other people to judge.

It's all about perception. Watch this:

(REMEMBER: In England "public school" means private school, and specifically an expensive, prestigious private school.)

Oh yes, how you talk DOES affect how other people perceive you. Rightly or wrongly. So we can't pretend it doesn't.

At the same time, it's simply quite wrong to consider one accent superior to another, because that's prejudice, bigotry...possibly even racism.


Within an accent there are right and wrong ways to pronounce things. That is to say that how you pronounce something is NEVER wrong, based on your accent, but still can be wrong, if other people with the same accent as you all agree on a pronunciation, and you err from THAT.

So, for example, the word vehicle.

I confess I almost die laughing when a certain Texan friend says this. Yeah, she knows. She loves me anyway. The way she says it is vee-hickle. She's not wrong. That is the correct Texan pronunciation. She is allowed to kick me if I titter.

But if you are born and raised in Toronto or London, and you say vee-hickle, it is WRONG.

See the difference? One is a bona fide regional variation, one is a mispronuciation.

In all cases, if it's not your dearest friend, it's completely inappropriate to laugh, or "correct" them, or even appear to notice at all. Etiquette requires that you ignore it. Doesn't matter if you claim to be being helpful or not. The only time it would be OK to interrupt, or point it out, is if a person has requested you do so, for example if you were a dialect coach in a theatre or movie shoot.

There is an exception to all of this, and it's when somebody pronounces your name wrong. So long as you are gentle and polite about it, it is perfectly acceptable to correct them on that. Just don't be surprised if they ignore you. Never mind writing a whole other blog about THAT, I could write a book.

Returning to my point. Correctness in speech is not the same as correctness in the written word. There are some similarities, i.e. regional spelling variations (color, colour) and some occasions where less formal speech (and slang) is best avoided (job applications, job interviews). But assuming they are both writing in semi-formal English, there is hardly any difference in text. You would never guess the person's accent from their writing. In fact often it's only the errors they make that are a clue there.

Here comes the interesting part. While we all agree that it's rude to point out a person's mistakes (in writing or in speech) unless they have asked us to, there is a different attitude over accents. Is it because accents don't (with the provisos mentioned above) show up in text?

If I think of the people who make the most fuss over their written errors being pointed out, they are the people most likely to poke fun at the way somebody talks. I can think of many examples of this, especially among the young (but not exclusively). I don't have a proper explanation for it, but it almost seems like revenge, or at least tit for tat. They are really fast to call somebody a grammar nazi, but they'll be the first to say "Ha! You talk funny!"

Harbouring some sort of insecurity perhaps.


  1. Stay out of Quebec; we would drive you bananas.

    1. I just don't understand half of what is being said.