A Cool Review for Shine in the Guardian

Shine by Candy Gourlay
'A precious and important novel that also explores exile from neighbours, family and country. The book is about reinvention and the faces we present to the world, whether it be in person, on a postcard or on the internet, all wrapped up in an exciting and perfectly paced story with a disturbing and dramatic climax.'
Philip Ardagh, The Guardian
Read the review

Tuesday, 1 June 2010

My dodgy accent

The Queen's English and I go back a long way

When I tell people that Tall Story will be published in the Philippines in July, their immediate question is: "In English?"

Well, yes. English is one of two official languages in the Philippines - the other one being Filipino, a language based on the majority dialect Tagalog, one of 171 native languages spoken in the country. With so many languages, Filipino educators have long sought a single, unifying language and Filipino was created to do just that.

So us Pinoys have a love-hate relationship with English - on the one hand, it seems an advantage to speak an international language, on the other hand, it's the language of our colonizers, the United States,  who came in 1898 purportedly to Christianize the Filipinos (not realizing that we'd been Catholics under Spain for 300 years).

When I'm visiting my family in the Philippines, I slip easily into the combined English-Tagalog patois spoken in Manila. But when friends in England ask me to demonstrate, I find it incredibly difficult to perform on demand.

For some strange psychological reason, when in the UK, I maintain an American accent with some British vowels.

There's a an online speech accent archive at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia where they're collecting accents. To join, all you have to do is record yourself reading from a text that is claimed to contain most of the consonants, vowels and clusters of Standard American English.
Please call Stella. Ask her to bring these things with her from the store: six spoons of fresh snow peas, five thick slabs of blue cheese, and maybe a snack for her brother Bob. We also need a small plastic snake and a big toy frog for the kids. She can scoop these things into three red bags, and we will go meet her Wednesday at the train station
So here I am reading the text in the accent I use on a daily basis in the UK.

And  here is the accent I revert to the moment I get home to the Philippines.

In the Philippines, as it is here in England, accents carry status connotations that heavily influence how one may be perceived by others - with one's perceived poshness relative to how Hollywood neutral your accent might be. My father, an artistic, creative soul, spoke four languages and though his English was complex, he couldn't quite shake off that heavy Visayan accent. My mother, an English teacher, has a clean, " received Hollywood" accent and no matter the state of her purse, she commands instant obsequiousness amongst the less linguistically adept.

In an article in today's Guardian, Steven H Weinberger, who runs the accents archive, insists that accents have nothing to do with ability or intelligence, they are "systematic rather than mistaken speech".
Crucial to an understanding of accents is that they are "systematic rather than merely mistaken speech", Weinberger says. This can counter what he describes as "biased social judgments" based on people's accents. "When we understand that accents are not due to 'errors' or faulty learning, we may be more sympathetic to the speakers. But biases are hard to unlearn."
Accent can be something of a tragedy for some people. A good friend of mine who speaks with an accent thick enough to slice is constantly made to suffer for it in the form of GPs ignoring her and various petty officials dismissing her as a crank. But if I pick up the phone on her behalf, she is amazed by the speed and courtesy with which people respond to my perceived-to-be less offensive accent.

In Tall Story, I have a Filipino character who, once he arrives in London, finds himself at a linguistic disadvantage when he tries to express himself in English - with hilarious results. But I make sure that the reader is party to his complex thoughts and feelings.

I hope it goes a little way towards demonstrating that you really can't judge a human being by his or her dodgy accent.


16 comments :

  1. I have a writer friend who has just got his doctorate in linguistics. I bet he'd love to hear your accents.

    My husband tells me that I get a thick Irish accent as soon as I touch down in Ireland and I start talking at a thousand miles per hour. Mainly he says that he can't understand me. The thing is - in Irish terms I have a very neutral accent, but try telling that to my very English husband when I'm sitting round a table talking with my four sisters.

    I love Bernardo's voice in Tall Story. He's fabulous.

    ReplyDelete
  2. In 1988,I got into Pyongyang to cover the 40th anniversary of Kim Il Sung (The Great Leader, as opposed to Dear Leader Kim Jong Il, who was still in-waiting at the time). Americans were persona-non-grata in North Korea so I was astonished to hear so many North American accents in the foreign delegations attending the vast ceremonies (the English-speaking North Koreans used British English). It was only later that I realized the Americans weren't Americans. They were Russians. I guess in those Cold War times, American English was the English to learn.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Very insightful post, Candy. Like you, I was brought up speaking more than one language. We spoke Maltese at home, which is a mixture of Arabic and Latin, English at school and watched telly in Italian [I actually grew up thinking Laurel and Hardy were Italians with funny accents]. When I moved to the Uk, my accent changed into...I'm not quite sure what. It's not a Maltese accent anymore and people mistake me for Spanish, Italian and even Polish. When I tell people I'm a writer, they do tend to ask 'are you published in the UK?' Which is fair, really. I love seeing their jaw drop when they log on to my site.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Firstly - Love the new look blog! Secondly what a fascinating topic. I did a year of linguistics at Uni and found it the development of language and dialect fascinating - tell me, do you slip into your pinoy/english when you are tired or have had more drinks that is sensible? I have a strong Portsmouth accent when I'm very tired or drunk and this is very odd as it was pure affectation that I ever developed it - you know, in an effort not to be the posh kid at school....

    ReplyDelete
  5. i think the moment when i realized i had truly integrated into british society was when i was in labour with one of my many sprogs and instead of yelling the pinoy aray!, i was ouching and effing as if swearing in English was my first language.

    ReplyDelete
  6. What they're saying on Facebook:

    Roxanne Oh my! You need a bigger head for that!

    Candy Gourlay it was really heavy.

    Philip I have such an urge to re-write "and we will go meet her Wednesday at the train station" as "and we will go AND meet her ON Wednesday at the [RAILWAY] station", the word 'railway' being optional because any unspecified type of station should be taken to mean railway station...!

    Nicky Fascinating, thoughtful and insightful post, Candy! And lovely to hear you - twice! ;-)

    Fiona That picture is seriously spooky!

    Helen Really good post, Candy! Haven't been able to make the recordings play yet, but shall. And must go to the George Mason University site and try out the recording.

    It's funny, in NYC you won't generally find people dissing a Filipino or African or whatever accent. However, I often encounter people here who - while they would never think less of someone with a "foreign" accent - when they hear a U.S. Southern or Southwestern accent, assume the speaker is an idiot (and lots of other things). Here I speak with something close to my mother's 1930s Park Avenue / Brearley School accent - but whenever I visit Texas, where I grew up, I start twanging away the second I'm off the plane - same thing as you. It makes my husband and son start laughing every time.

    Candy Gourlay @Helen I think it depends on the accent and on the culture! In the Philippines, certain accents carry big status queues - in the olden days for example, Spanish inflected Tagalog was considered posh, and Visayan was common.

    @Philip I actually filled in the ON in the second reading!

    Candy Gourlay status cues! not queues!

    Frankie yur ahksint en da pilipins es nut da weh yu discrive. et es stell burry amurikan. lar lar, pents on par!

    Candy Gourlay @Frankie I keep the American accent when I speak to you because you are a foreign land.

    Helen Candy, here's a clip of one of my very favorite Southern voices, the late historian Shelby Foote, from Mississippi.

    One can argue with his Anglo perspective but not w/ his intelligence. But this is the very accent that freaks out people in the northeastern U.S.

    Kathryn fascinating...

    Candy Gourlay @helen that's fantastic! i could listen to him forever. and why does the accent freak out people in the north east?

    ReplyDelete
  7. I think you sound british, but I'm a Canadian eh!

    That crown looks like it's straining your neck. I will be needing a crown soon as I am starting my own country: Janada. Want to join!?

    How many blogs do you have now sista!? I can't keep up.

    ReplyDelete
  8. @jan always open to joining new countries! i can be your immigration minister.

    re blogs - i quietly set this one up in preparation for the launch of my book. i haven't publicised it much. my other blog has a focus that i don't want to lose and i am very conscious that having a book in the wild will require a kind of blogging that will appeal to non-writers too. still feeling my way with this one ... but it does no harm to be prepared. i think it will come into its own when people who aren't actually friends and relatives read my book!

    ReplyDelete
  9. From the TALL STORY fan page:

    Cornelio candy, here in california, the younger generation of filipino-americans who hear filipinos who speak english with a filipino accent call them FOBs (fresh off the boat). so when they (filipino-american kids) hear filipino seniors, or newcomewrs talking, I hear them comment to each other, "that's so fob". your pinoy accent is more sophisticated....so i think you will not be classified as a fob....lol.

    TALL STORY i have an adjustable accent ... when i'm speaking to visayan speakers, i suddenly acquire a visayan accent. and in ireland, i was embarrassed to hear a brogue creep into my voice. thank goodness i don't speak french!

    Penny That was really interesting. I couldn't read that text without sounding American even though I have a standard English accent normally

    ReplyDelete
  10. @Cornelio the one thing i've learned living in a true melting pot like london is that accents really do not tell you much about a person's character even if it does reveal a level of background.

    ReplyDelete
  11. I have always been fascinated by accents, and here, you prove exactly WHY I find them so! You sound so different and I hadn't thought about you speaking this way, so it was a lovely surprise. By the way, you have a lovely velvety speaking voice. I tend to like rich, slightly deeper tones in men and gentle,(never squeaky) tones in women, so certain countries/cultural accents are definite winners and others not(I won't state which ones, as I wouldn't want to offend). In the UK I love the Geordie, West Country and Welsh accents and the lilting Irish tones, outside of it. Abroad I like various ones and some actually make me smile, like the Jamaican and others are very clipped and guttural.....Nuff said. Great piece of writing.

    ReplyDelete
  12. My accent always adjusts to whom I'm speaking. When I was in Singapore, I did the lah! all the time, I went home Singaporean. Imagine when I had to speak to six people from different countries in one week!

    I'm going to play those recordings of yours now.

    ReplyDelete
  13. @woodlandiaworld a long time ago, i went to tokyo to cover a state visit by Cory Aquino, our then president. a man stopped me in a department store and berated me in japanese before walking off in a huff. my companion, who spoke japanese, said the man was offended that my voice was so deep, i wasn't making an effort to sound more feminine! i'm sure japan has moved on since then ... sign of my age that i would have an experience like that!

    ReplyDelete
  14. This is fascinating. You sound like two different people in the two recordings!

    It is a shame that some accents are seen as less acceptable than others. In the UK, regional accents are more acceptable now than they used to be but there is still a hierarchy of accents. My voice tends towards the posher end and I do think it gives me an unfair advantage - one that I'm happy to have, I must admit!

    ReplyDelete
  15. So true! Accents are about belonging as much as anything. I have friends who lapse into cod-accent every time they speak to someone with another native tongue. Hilarious, and sometimes embarrassing, but it's all about identification at the end of the day.

    ReplyDelete
  16. F*ckin' amazing issues here. I'm very satisfied to look your article. Thanks so much and i am taking a look forward to touch you. Will you kindly drop me a mail? Check professional phone answering for best Phone Answering.

    ReplyDelete

Do you feel a burning need to have your say? Or maybe just to say hello? Then come along, click away ...