There's no getting around it for me. I can't contain my irritation any longer. Affected and insincere accents are possibly the most irritating social faux pas going.
Sometime last year I met a person in a part of North America (yes, I'm being deliberately vague), who was informing all those present that they had just returned from spending a period of time in the UK, my homeland, as a student. Now, I like most of you strive to reserve all judgements (to paraphrase Nick Carraway), but I could tell that this person had some affected characteristics that couldn't help but grate on my ears, brain and soul.
The person had "acquired" the most unconvincing, toe curling, bad English accent I've ever heard. It was so bad that it made me physically uncomfortable, and it made Dick Van Dyke sound like a genuine born and raised Londoner. I'm not entirely sure what was so bad about it. I think it was that it was so obviously forced. It was an inconsistent attempt at sounding like a totally bizarre hybrid of the Queen, David Beckham, Hugh Grant, Maggie Thatcher and Oliver Twist, all with that underlying, inescapable North American twang, and yes it was worse than Madonna.
They crowbarred in words like "bloody" into their conversation in a way that no Brit I've ever met actually talks. They talked about "chavs"; I haven't heard people use the word chav for at least five years!
I do understand why this person's attempt at an English accent was so bad. An English accent is actually quite hard. I often enjoy banter with my North American friends who impersonate me. Their English accent is either cockney Dickens or horsey royal family. Most southern English folk are somewhere in between, and that's quite a hard accent to get right. Just like when I try and do an American accent, it normally comes out as Cletus from The Simpsons.
After hearing this person's obvious affectation, it subsequently become clear to me that it was not such a unique case. I've encountered several people who do this in North America. In my experience I have to say it is almost always American or Canadian students in their 20s who have spent a year or two abroad. They are invariably affecting an English or Australian accent. Never, say, Chinese, German or Indian.
Having said that, in the classical music world you will often hear North American artists pronounce composer's names in a generic European accent. A kind of Polish, Russian, French, British conglomeration of sounds.
The obvious question one may consider is why would someone do this? Is it an attempt to seem well-travelled? Sophisticated? Cultured? If so it could well be in vain as I can tell you that there are many people with English accents who are not well-travelled, sophisticated or cultured. Is it because they just love England? If so, fair enough, that's allowed, but why can't you do it with your natural accent? The other option of course, although I'm totally unconvinced by this, is that it just happened naturally and their experience of a year or two abroad really did change the way they speak.
I will always, for sake of politeness and understanding, change words abroad.
Most linguists it would appear are fairly magnanimous in their agreement that accents develop very early on, and are a product of nurture over nature. Different accents require the mouth to make very different shapes and sounds. Babies try out all of these sounds in their babbling, but it's quickly lost as the parents or whoever raises them chisel down those sounds into the language and accent that they are brought up with. By age five, that ability to make all the different possible sounds is more or less lost, as is the sponge like baby brain that picks up information so quickly and efficiently. That's why as adults we normally find it very hard to accurately imitate a foreign or even regional accent without our friends laughing at us.
Of course, it is entirely possible to do so and some do it very successfully. Primarily I'm thinking of actors, actually mainly British actors, who manage very convincing American accents: Hugh Laurie, Damian Lewis, Idris Elba, Daniel Day-Lewis, etc. These actors will often spend months of the year speaking in a foreign accent in order to perfect it for a performance. They might spend half of the year speaking it, and yet it seems like they almost always switch straight back to the accent they acquired before age five after the role is finished.
I'm not saying that accents can never change. But it is undeniable that it takes a great many years living and being immersed in it before you can begin to absorb an accent effectively. I'm sure there are some people who have developed perfect accents within a few years and maybe even less. But for those people it must have been a conscious decision and effort. Or, they have Foreign Accent Syndrome (FAS).
In my own personal case, I would feel awkward affecting a Canadian or an American accent when I am in those countries as I would feel it to be incredibly disingenuous, untrue to me and it wouldn't feel natural. I will always, for sake of politeness and understanding, change words abroad. I will change "rubbish" to "garbage," "lift" to "elevator" e.t.c. But I'll still speak the way I speak.
The diversity of accents is a truly amazing thing. I feel proud that when I go to the pub with my friends, we are all speaking differently, reflecting our various cultures, nations and regions.
So, the moral of the story is, don't pretend (unless you're a Hollywood actor and someone is paying you millions of dollars to do so, in which case, fair play). Sure, if you move to a different country some words, phrases and ways of saying things will creep into your speech. But it seems profoundly insincere to me to force it for the sake of pretense, impressing your friends back home or indeed, a desire to leave your past behind. Embrace the way you speak, be proud of it and take what you can from all cultures and languages!
But what do you think? Affected accents: acceptable or a definite no-no?
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