Once again it’s time for us to connect through this means. This month I am looking at accents, and you may wonder what that is all about. Accents are a part of linguistics, something I’m keenly interested in. I once taught a course in linguistics; I find the topic fascinating.
Some people like to identify types of trees, others stars, and still others rocks. I like to identify accents. I listen for them and tune in when I hear a different one. Not long ago, I heard the conductor of an outstanding university choir make his opening remarks to the audience at a concert, and right away I said to myself, “Barbados, or Trinidad.” Then after a few more sentences, he apologized for his “Trinidad habit of saying ‘the other day.’ ” I felt good, having spotted another accent.” While grocery shopping, I heard a distinctive accent near me in the aisle. I turned to one of the two women close by and said, “Bahamas!” She said, “Yes,” and we had an enjoyable time talking about the islands.
I am not alone in this penchant for spotting accents. In one of my courses when I studied at the university, my professor brought in a linguist whose specialty was detecting accents, matching them to an individual’s place of origin. We all had to leave the classroom and one by one return to speak into a tape recorder. The visitor then played back our voices and told (“guessed” would be a better word) where each of us was from. It is true that a particular accent can be the basis for some people to show bigotry, discrimination, and disdain for others, but that’s not where I’m going with this post. Accents have a more pleasant side.
“I love your accent,” people are prone to say when they hear someone speaking in tones that are different from their own. We can run into these different sounds anywhere. We tend to pay attention when we encounter them outside of the setting where everyone is used to sounding alike. However, individuals may speak the same language but with a different sound, and so have a different accent.
You may hear someone say, “I don’t have an accent.” You, too, may think that you don’t have one, but everyone has an accent. Our accent is just as much a part of us as our arms and legs. Accents differ according to people groups, but a different language is not a different accent in and of itself. Speakers of French, Spanish, or German all have accents within their own language. The accent is the flavor of the individual’s or the group’s way of speaking. It involves such things as the inflection of the voice, the pitch level, the placement of the emphasis or stress on particular syllables. Vocabulary furnishes the special words of a group of speakers, and the accent results from the way they say those words. The sound is what we hear and take away as part of that person. It is what others may find attractive or even “different” about us. It can be a sweet cadence or a charming lilt, or it can be harsh, grating, and even off-putting.
Linguists can tell where a person is from by the individual’s accent, but it didn’t take a linguist to detect the disciple Peter’s accent as he spoke and warmed himself by a fire the night of Jesus’ trial. Right away a servant girl picked up on Peter’s Galilean accent and said so. He was trying to hide his identification with the Christ, but his accent gave him away. One of the persons in the group by the fire told Peter outright, “Your speech betrays you” (Matthew 25:73).
We might not be aware of this, but our lives have an accent all their own and radiate tones that others can detect. Like Peter, we reveal our accent in our conversation, but we also display it in our actions and in the attitude we project. It is that which comes across when we interact with others. This kind of accent doesn’t tell where we’re from; it reveals the kind of person we are. We may not be able to control our accent when we speak, but the accent of our lives is completely within our control. We should strive to make our life’s accent minister grace to those among whom we live and work each day.
“I think we are wise, we English speakers, to savor accents.
They teach us things about our own tongue.“
Anne Rice Merrick