Quick Detour About Accents

Before you ask, I don’t get it either. I don’t understand why anyone would write about this and yet, I am. Specifically, by English language accent alone, you, too can tell the difference between a person from the Netherlands, Germany, Switzerland, or South Africa. Yes, you can. It doesn’t count if they tell you or you are currently in one of the named countries or happen to be a native of any of the above-mentioned countries. For the rest? Hold on, here we go.

Germany: A German person speaking English sounds nothing like what you hear on those silly dated sitcoms of the past. Not at all. The (stereo-)typical German person will speak precisely, in part because they’re smart and studied, but also because their native language, at least the standard version, requires a precision that most of us non-Canadian speakers ever acquire. Every other promised group deviates from this single standard.

The Netherlands: When I hear Dutch folk talk, I hear versions of the German accent, but with a touch of the BBC. Is it the proximity to London? I don’t know. When I could barely speak German (a long time ago), I remember seeing Dutch words and thinking how bizarre the spelling looked, particularly when, once spoke, it sounded almost the same. To be sure, they are two different languages, but, now, if I heard both, I would know just enough to pretend (only to myself) that I actually understand 10% of what I heard. But I digress. This German/Dutch spelling difference reminds me of the American/all-others spelling differences. Does mere spelling difference affect pronunciation, even in a third language? I don’t know, but, in my all-knowing blogger persona, I say yes it does.

South Africa: Among the various South African languages, Afrikaans is closely related to Dutch having moved out from it’s parent’s house along with various settlers of long ago. But, an Afrikaans English accent sounds almost exactly like a Dutch English accent, replacing London with Cape Town. Most Americans, including me, can’t easily tell the difference between the English of Sydney, Christchurch, or Cape Town so I could have it wrong. In that case, relying on this post, for any reason, is not advised.

Switzerland: When I traveled to Switzerland, someone once told me that the key to differentiating between German English-speakers and Swiss German English speakers is simple. German English speakers use the language just as good (well?) as folks in North America. In contrast, the Swiss will speak it better. Oh, it’s not because Swiss are any smarter, but, yes, I remember being embarrassed by my native linguistic skill speaking to an ordinary bartender.

Austria: I should know this, but, when I lived there, Austria was where I went skiing/hiking and not, unfortunately to talk. I’ll get back to you some day.

For those of us native English speakers, much of Europe is linguistically undemanding because English-speakers are everywhere. In a train station in Milan, I recall the German travelers buying tickets from the Italian clerk using English. But, when I needed to find a hotel in Florence, the only other language the Italian clerk knew was German. I pretended and even understood a word or two. I did not find that hotel … ever. Irony.

Now, if you’re good, some day in the future I’ll tell you all about how, by body language alone, to tell an American gaggle of teenagers from that of Canada, Germany, Italy, or France. Or, maybe I’ll act wisely and stop analyzing silly differences. Maybe.

26 thoughts on “Quick Detour About Accents

  1. Further, in Rome, I can tell you how to find the kids from South Philly…and really, you can tell someone from Cape Town – and no, I can’t tell you how. It is that sound…I like to think of it as Rich English – not in the sense that it is upper crust, but that it sounds richer somehow.

    • Cape Town? Yes! ‘Rich’ is the perfect world.

      South Philly? You (anyone, really) know more than I do about that. I’d probably tack a ya’ll on to a bad Rocky imitation and embarrass everyone.

      • South Philly teens all do bad Rocky impressions. Rocky was a bad South Philly impression. But it makes it easy to pick ’em…”ga’head, ga’head” (a SP-ism meaning “please, you go first”) is like nowhere else on earth…

    • Compared to all the various rural hideaways of the US? Yup! I’m no linguist but in analysis of a bunch of regional merging of phonemes (making different words sound the same) I think that Canada, from Ontario to BC had the fewest.

  2. It amazes me that 4 miles up the road from me they sound like like they’re from a Kentucky mining town. 2 miles the opposite way there’s a distinct Tennesee drawl. Mind you I’m about an hour from the Michigan line. There are people that have lived here their entire life yet sound as if they’re Georgia transplants. I don’t get it.

    I live nowhere near a still, an Appalachian trail, or Piggly Wiggly.

  3. I think most of the world is starting to speak English increasingly with generic US accents. It’s only a matter of time I think before your next aggressive Republican gvmt patents the language and changes its name to Statesish. True story

    • If that happens, I’ll have to finally migrate to Canada. Being an imperialist conqueror just isn’t worth the hassle.

    • For what it’s worth, I just listened to an interview of an American band by a German interviewer (Fichstenstein from ) and her accent defies my own crude categorization. So, I’m wrong … [sigh] …

      • Haha, I just wanted to comment anyway when I read my (Alter Ego)-name. Well…around 17, 18, I got a little obsessed with accents and trained them and now I speak a weird mixture of everything that increases depending on the series/movies I have been watching recently and the amount of alcohol I drank (when doing drunk Karaoke, I get very British, for example).
        I can actually tell English-speaking nationalities by the nationality they put me in. Americans will say that I sound British, the British will go with American/Canadian and some Welsh were just weird once and said that I was from Sweden (true story).
        I am glad, though, that I am not the only one who feels the need to find out the nationality based on English accents (whether it’s mother-tongue or not).
        By the way, I can do a perfectly fine Arnold Schwarzenegger which is so much fun to do. Those Austrians…then again, Christopher Waltz is Austrian and he has a really charming accent. Oh, and before you oversee my link on my own blog: http://pitchfork.com/advance/163-circumambulation/.

        • Yeah, you’ve got an interesting mix of influences. The British word choice, by my rules, says Dutch, but the pronunciation says German. Either way, I know the real answer, so it’s not fair, I guess. On a related note, I’ve had folks in London think I was Welsh when I tried to imitate a British accent. Fun/odd stuff!

  4. You have stellar listening skills- with music and with accents. It’s all related I would guess. I am interested in your teen analysis since I imagine that includes more visually-based nuances. Can Orange see as well as he hears? Inquiring minds want to know.

    • I don’t actually have special vision, but I (over-)recognize patterns. As a taste of some future post: it all comes down to use of actual space, personal space, and inner/outer focus of attention. Americans, as you may guess, take up lots of space, actual and intangible, look outward and muse inward. If Americans do that at “volume” of 10, Canadians do the similar things at about a 4. Just an unlicensed opinion, based almost exclusively on seeing tour groups in big European and Central American cities.

Am I wrong?