Friday, December 10, 2010

A Linguistic Discovery

  
When I lived in Denmark, I was a sort of linguistic chameleon. By which I mean that I had a habit of picking up the regional accent of whatever person I was speaking to. Saying it was a habit makes it sound as if it was on purpose. It wasn't, just happened – I’d start out a conversation speaking with the intonation of someone who's grown up in the suburbs of Copenhagen and within about 20 min. or so, I sounded like I was from Fyn/Funen or Jylland/Jutland.

My osmosis with my conversation partner disappeared when I came to Canada. I just can't do accents in English - perhaps it is because my own is still so close to the surface? That is, with the exception of an Irish accent. There's something about the cadence of the Irish way of speaking that hits the same place as Fynsk (as in coming from the island of Funen/Fyn) - they're both lilting, musical sounds. Which is funny because I can't sing in key at all.

And a sidetrack, but it's relevant. In terms of languages, I have a great fondness for the sounds of many, not just in terms of the way the individual language sounds in itself, but also of the way its accent colours English. Russian, Spanish, Portuguese, Australian (yes, I know they theoretically speak English, but try watching watch an Australian movie and see how much you can pick up). There our also languages that never really appealed to me and one of them's Italian. I don't know why, I mean no offense to the Italian people, country or culture out there, but it just never turned my crank.

A couple of weeks ago, I dropped by my mother's place and had to pick up something from another tenant in the building lives on another floor. There I ran into an older woman, who stopped me to check if I was my mother's daughter - I admitted that I was - and mention how she was a bit confused that I was on the wrong floor. We had a bit of a chat, she introduced herself as Giovanna and despite having been in Canada for decades, she still had an incredibly charming and very heavy Italian accent. And within 3 minutes, so did I. Less heavy, but there was a definite change in the way the words came out of my mouth and the change was definitely Italian. Turns out that the lilt hits the exact same place in my head as Irish and Fynsk.

Who knew? Of course, now I'm starting to think I might want to study Italian.
   

8 comments:

Marie said...

About the languages -- you probably have a lot of empathy and that comes across when you speak to others with an accent.  While there are probably a lot of people from outside the southeastern US who think that all Southerners sound alike, there are a lot of variety in southern regional accents.  Even though you say you don't pick up English language accents, you probably notice them, don't you?

AlisonH said...

Cool! Go for it!

I grew up just outside Washington DC in a neighborhood full of embassy personnel, going to schools with everyone from everywhere--much like how I envision Toronto as being. That musical fluidity of accent, I love it, it comes so naturally, and I think it's a measure not only of speech but of one's being in tune with the other, a sort of natural linguistic empathy. Personally, I think it's really cool.

Diane said...

Same thing happens to me...the longer I spend elsewhere, the more likely I am to sound like I came from there.  

Anonymous said...

Its funny but my Mum speaks Norwegian (she's english) and when we talk about anything norwegian I can detect a mild change in her voice, it's really funny :D

You should definitely have a crack at Italian. I speak French and we visited Spain a lot for a few years and I definitely think it was easier for me to pick up another Latin-based Language because I already spoke one.

We had an interesting lesson about language families one day from my French teacher when I was at school and she explained to us that if you can speak Latin you can tackle any languaged based in it like Italian, Spanish, etc.   If you speak a Germanic - based language then you'll probably be able to speak any language in that 'family' too.

Gaina said...

<span>Its funny but my Mum speaks Norwegian (she's english) and when we talk about anything norwegian I can detect a mild change in her voice, it's really funny :D  
 
You should definitely have a crack at Italian. I speak French and we visited Spain a lot for a few years and I definitely think it was easier for me to pick up another Latin-based Language because I already spoke one.  
 
We had an interesting lesson about language families one day from my French teacher when I was at school and she explained to us that if you can speak Latin you can tackle any languaged based in it like Italian, Spanish, etc.   If you speak a Germanic - based language then you'll probably be able to speak any language in that 'family' too.</span>

Anonymous said...

I have a similar problem, which can become embarrassing if anyone thinks that I'm making fun of their accent by imitating them.  When I lived in the south of France, I developed a really heavy southern French accent, which did not win me friends in Paris (quick adjustment necessary).  I do it less with British accents, except in intonation...  I just heard a really neat lecture on my campus by Aniruddh Patel, who wrote the book Music, Language, and the Brain.  (I am such a linguist.)  The book looks really neat and has gone on my "to get soon" list.

Anonymous said...

I just realized I wasn't logged in as me in that last comment.  Sorry! (Jocelyn)

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