Saturday, October 24, 2015

Things I Don't Get #9: Guessing Accents

I was born in the Bronx and I've lived here for thirty years. While my interests in language and music have muddled my accent into something which has variously been identified as English and "European," in moments of unguarded anger and enthusiasm–driving and teaching Cicero, inter alia–I can cut ehhhs and awwws that slice granite. Now I don't mind this, and in fact I relish my ability to pierce the human ear and scare animals and pedestrians at whim. Why, though, does identifying the accents of others seem to amuse people?

As a relatively untraveled man, I've spent most of my time in NYC its surrounds, and so few have ever commented on my accent. My wife, however, is from Kentucky, and it seems every time we meet someone here, they get this little glint in eye and, smirking and tilting their heads, ask, "Do I detect an accent? Now where are you from?" Why does everyone who can spot an accent different from his own think he's Henry Higgins? As if an ear that can distinguish something heard constantly, daily, and for decades from something slightly different–my wife's accent is gentle and mild–is a heaven-sent gift of observation.

Now some people like to show off, that I understand. Yet is seems to me that the moment when you meet someone is a particularly inappropriate time at which to put someone on the spot and make them feel that they don't belong, that the inquirer is in charge. Such is in fact the root of this phenomenon, that some people cannot approach others as confident and amicable equals, but need immediately to establish hierarchy. People who ask such questions like to establish themselves either as natives, which they take to be the same as superiors, or as experts, and of course expertise makes someone superior, right?

I take such a dim view of the question because in an allegedly liberal and egalitarian society as New York, I assume people are beyond tribal bonds. In the Old World it made sense to ask an outsider, "Who are you and from where have you come?" The outsider needs to establish himself as trustworthy and with good intentions. Today, at what we are constantly assured is the apex of modernity, what else could be the cause of such a shakedown? Certainly not that we are less modern than we fancy.

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