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Thursday, October 28, 2010

"You must be from New Zealand."

I've know for a while that my accent was "in the middle" somewhere. A lot of native Southerners say that they don't hear an accent (meaning it's standard American), but when I travel in the US outside the South, people say OH YEAH you do have a Southern accent. This is probably familiar to a lot of people who have moved to a different area than they grew up in or whose accent has changed.

I admit to trying to "soften" my accent when I was in college because it just sounded too redneck to me. However, I have never wanted to get rid of it, just to have a more attractive version of it...more genteel. I don't want to have a boring, standard American accent, and I am proud of my Southern heritage.

But the comments I have received here in Beijing are bizarre to me. Many of my students have said that I don't sound American. If I ask them what I sound like, they usually say British, or say I sound like another teacher here--who is from England. This puzzles me, so I've asked them what in particular makes them say that. They usually can't say. A couple of times, students have said something like, "You just don't act like an American."

Well. What does that mean? I think of the old "All in the Family" show, where Archie made the outre comment that all British men act "queer". Is that what they really meant? I tend to discount the students' comments since I don't think they are particularly good at detecting English-language accents anyway.

However, a couple of teachers who are from Australia told me they thought at first I was from Australia or New Zealand. And today, in training, a guy from England upon meeting me said confidently, "You're either from Australia or New Zealand--can't quite place it." When I told him America - North Carolina, he said, "Well, I guess we expect the way we hear Americans sound in movies."

The one thing that I know that stands out about the way I speak is my Pennsylvania long "o". It's kind of "e-yo-oo" sound. I learned about this when I took a diction class in college. (This was the same time I learned there was a difference in pronunciation between "pin" and "pen", and "want" and "won't'.) My professor went to my church and was aware that in elementary school I was taught by nuns from Pennsylvania, so he concluded that's where I must have gotten it. When I hear that sound, it does sound British to me, and I mentioned that to the English guy today, and he said "Maybe that's it."

Any light friends or family could shed on this mystery would be much appreciated.

BTW it will be interesting to hear, when I return to the States, whether people think I speak any differently. When I first started teaching, I was told repeatedly that I speak too fast for students to understand, so I've really worked on slowing down my speech, also on enunciating my words more clearly. I rarely get a complaint anymore, so I guess I'm succeeding.

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