At dinner the other night a couple of my Parisian friends asked me and an American friend if Bernie Sanders spoke with a Yiddish accent.
No, we said immediately. He speaks with a New York accent. My French friends had no idea. They really couldn’t hear it, but they had simply assumed it was Yiddish, for some reason, as if everyone in New York spoke in the cliché manner of a Borscht Belt comic.
The woman who had posed the question is very attuned to the nuances of the French accent, and can even, she says, tell the difference between accents of different arrondissements in Paris. But varieties of spoken English are unrecognizable.
For most French speakers the English language is a blur of swallowed sounds with hard endings. If they speak English, the French might be able to distinguish between a British sort of accent or an American one, though it’s hit or miss. Once while I was walking with my friend Pierre along the Seine, a couple asked us in English for directions to the Eiffel Tower. Pierre asked me later if they were American. One of the two was English, I said, the other American. They both sounded the same to him.
French acquaintances who can get by in English have a really hard time with American English accents. Few French can understand Texan accents, or can differentiate between regions of the south, or can tell the difference between a California way of speaking or a Maine one. It’s just mush to them.
“Americans have horrible accents,” this Parisian friend who’d asked about Bernie Sanders said to me a few weeks ago, generalizing in that irritating French way after hearing a single gaggle of young American women chattering on in high-pitched squawks. Some French accents are disagreeable too – but she wouldn’t hear that. (The French feel it’s fine to criticize anyone else’s language, but theirs is off-limits, regardless that for linguists all languages are equal.)
But accents are a funny thing.
My French accent is pretty good, but I have a definite accent, as is normal (everyone has an accent, of course). When I meet people for the first time in France, they sometimes ask if I’m British. Native English speakers have a tendency to pronounce words and phrases in a certain manner in French, whether they’re from America, Ireland, Canada, Australia or Great Britain. So the French tend to group us all together, just as native English speakers tend to group together all French speakers of English regardless of the speakers’ regional accents in their native French.
I’m not an expert in accents or regionalisms, but I have a decent ear for the sound of spoken English, and I can often tell what general area someone comes from. In French, it’s more difficult for me. I now notice general differences between accents from the north or the south or the southwest of France, but I can’t pinpoint anything closer than a broad geographical swath of the country. And as the French have a tough time with accents from Texas, I’ve had to become accustomed to certain strong regional French ones too. It took me a while to understand much of what my friend Raoul said, even as my French got better, because of how he speaks. He’s from Toulouse, and his strong accent took me some getting used to. When you grow up in a language, you’re confronted with wide variations in how particular words are spoken, and you grow to recognize them automatically and then to place them regionally. When you learn a language later in life, as I have, it’s enough to be able to communicate let alone figure out the corner of the world that accounts for someone’s way of speaking.
I can’t differentiate between the French of Belgians or the French of Swiss. But then the French can’t differentiate English accents between Americans and Canadians (though the French Canadian accent is pretty identifiable even for those whose French is approximate). But the French, as all of us do, like to place people according to how they speak. It’s our human categorization of others, of assigning hierarchies based on received standards of communication. Of putting people in their place in a way.
“He speaks almost without an accent,” is one of the highest compliments a French speaker can give to a non-native speaker of French. But what does that really mean? And does it even matter if the person can speak and communicate in a foreign language so that meanings or subtleties are understood?
A few weeks ago, during dinner with the couple with whom I’d first exchanged apartments in Paris – they had stayed chez moi in New York – Pavel said to me that I now spoke French almost without an accent. But I do have an accent, I told him – an American one.
“But it’s not your standard American accent in French,” he said. “It’s softer.” Which he meant as high praise.
When we first met a few years ago, when my French was rudimentary, and we attempted to communicate, all I heard when Pavel spoke was French, regardless of his accent. But now, to my ears, his French is so heavily accented that during our conversation I found it sometimes hard to follow what he was saying. He’s fluent in French, but his Czech accent retains so much of that Eastern European inflection that despite his considerable fluency in French (he writes his novels in French), that you would never tell him that he speaks without accent. But that may be why he said that about my accent: it’s all relative.
Accents change over time, sometimes rapidly. My friend who’d said how horrible the accents of those young American women sounded (and, by extension, all Americans) mentioned that she’d detected an evolving accent among young women in Paris, who were now speaking at a higher pitch than Parisian women of her generation.
The same thing is happening in American English – a lot of people under 40 have a rising up-speak that sounds disagreeable to people who are used to hearing the pronunciation of an earlier age. But my Parisian friend was unaware of that, and even if it had been explained to her, it wouldn’t have sunk in. English isn’t her language, and spoken English is either mush or a piercing wall of sound.
Categorization isn’t the point, is it? Communication is. But that’s not how the world works, or at least how it sounds. We like to differentiate people in our native language according to how they sound to us and according to what we perceive to be received pronunciation or a proper way of speaking. It’s aural snobbery.
Categorizing the accent of someone in another language is a sort of acceptable prejudice. We’d rather mock how they sound than hear what they say.