Language Matters: The Delicate Issue Of Accents

A recent discussion on Danny Breslin’s blog got me thinking about how people respond to the sounds of different languages, accents and dialects. For example, there seems to be a general consensus that French and Italian are very pleasant to listen to, while Chinese and German are considered a bit…erm… challenging on the ear.

imran-khanThen there’s also the issue of non-native speaker accents. I remember – it must have been 20 years ago – seeing pictures of Pakistani cricket legend Imran Khan, and thinking he was pretty hot. But listening to him being interviewed on the BBC one day made my celebrity crush evaporate in an instant. THAT accent just makes my hormones die, I cannot help it. English spoken with a strong German accent also makes me cringe – I guess it’s just too close to home ๐Ÿ˜‰

It’s not uncommon for regional accents to elicit this kind of response. In the UK, ‘Brummie’ spoken by people in and around Birmingham seems to be the most despised. I understand that accents across the West Midlands vary, and that it’s not all Brummie, but, to the ears of people not originating from or living in that area, the subtle nuances are lost. To me, it’s all just various shades of unpleasant.

About a decade ago, I set up meeting with a guy I’d encountered on a dating site. I knew he was from Wolverhampton (a town just north-west of Birmingham), so I should have been prepared. Well, actually hearing him speak on the phone for the first time sent my lustometer readings spiralling into the coal pit.

(On this note, I’d like to point out that I’m not so shallow that I can’t overcome my dislike of certain accents if I actually connect with someone. It just didn’t happen on that occasion.)

The German equivalent of Brummie is the Saxon accent. It is the unanimously most reviled, nobody can listen to that and maintain an easy smile on their face, except, of course, for the perpetrators themselves. (Oh cruel irony of ironies, the German word for the Saxon accent is “Sรคchsisch”, which is pronounced “sexish” – and it’s so definitely NOT!!!). I have no idea how what the Saxons do those poor vowels can possibly be legal, but, unfortunately,ย  crawling through their windows at night and severing their vocal chords isn’t.

This joke is based on the fact that the German word for "cats" is pronounced like the verb "to barf" by the Saxons.

A jibe based on the fact that the German word for “cats” is pronounced like the verb “to barf” by the Saxons.

Well, I’d love to hear if there are any languages/dialects/accents that make your small intestine wrap itself round your pancreas. And what’s the most loathed regional accent in your country?

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62 thoughts on “Language Matters: The Delicate Issue Of Accents

  1. LeggieLefty

    I must confess, it was the Imran Khan pics that got me in here. Only because I write cricket related post, not because I think he’s hot. As a cricket fan, I admired his talent and his style on the ground. I can say that many women find him deeply attractive.

    But then I continued reading and the LastWord in me came to the fore. Yes there are people who make me cringe when they speak. Primarily though, it’s the expressions they use rather than their accents that make me wrinkle my nose. It’s been heightened by living and working in North America where the cliche and de-facto standards of expression rule.

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    1. ladyofthecakes Post author

      Well, hello there cricket writer, can see that cruising by my wee blog must be a little bit of a detour from your usual route ๐Ÿ˜‰
      Yes, this is another meaty area, the expressions that people use… I might write something on that at some point. Cheers for the inspiration!

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  2. ื™ื•ื ืชืŸ ืงืกืจ

    *laughs* It makes me think of the “Bawlmer” accent I hear around our area. Not that my wife or her family (or, frankly, any of our friends) speak that way, but it is frequently heard, and there’s definitely an… adaptation time involved if you move into the area.

    I’m sure it’s not much different than when I moved to south Texas with my lovely blend of Midwestern and Passaic-New Jersey accents, and speaking at what seemed to them to be warp-speed…

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  3. pollyheath

    Definitely the Southern American accent is the worst. And not the nice, mellifluous accents of the deep South. I’m talking the twangy, redneck accent that I grew up with (and mostly avoided except for an occasional “yall”). Going back home is always a pleasure for the ears… Not.

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    1. ladyofthecakes Post author

      Ha ha ha! Some folks in my area speak ‘deep Bavarian’ – but I like it, it has a kind of originality to it that I really appreciate. My aunt came out with an expression last time that made laugh out loud. Even though I speak it, the oldies have so much vocab that’s simply dying out with them, boo-hoo ๐Ÿ˜ฆ

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  4. bevchen

    I hate the brummie accent! Love Irish accents and certain Scottish accents (not Glasgow though!).

    We actually did a module on accent and dialect for A-level English and had to look at the results of a survey on how people view those who speak with various British accents. Brummie speakers were considered stupid and annoying, Geordies were the most friendly but the least intelligent and people with West Country accents were viewed as slow. I can’t remember any more.

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    1. ladyofthecakes Post author

      LOL, that figures ๐Ÿ˜‰
      Seriously though, I draw the line at attributing certain character/intellectual traits to specific accents – it veers dangerously into the direction of prejudice. On the other hand, of course, it can be argued that people with a higher educational level can usually manage to speak the “standard” form of the national language. My grandmother would struggle to speak Hochdeutsch, though she understands it, of course.

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      1. bevchen

        The school I was at at the time is in Northumberland, so everyone was pleased that Geordie was supposed to be friendly but outraged by the “stupid” part. I suspect the whole point in us having to look at the survey was something to do with teaching us that prejudice is bad…

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  5. Anna

    Anything from the south is generally considered declasse. And when I say ‘generally’, I mean ‘by us snobby Muscovites.’ We are knows for AAAAHHHHH-ing everything: basically turning every remotely similar vowel (O, A, Ya) into that sound. It’s the Moscow trademark – I’ve been told that I actually carried this into my English pronunciation. This stands in contrast to the St Petersburg’s classic ‘intelligentsia’ pronunciation of actually saying those vowels ‘properly.’ Now, I’m not saying that their way is wrong, but come on, StPete’s is basically a village, they gotta feel good about SOMETHING ๐Ÿ˜‰

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      1. Anna

        WHAAAAAT? You keep talking about how you’re a peasant and all that and SUDDENLY you get all proper and snooty on me? EPIC SIDE-EYE

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  6. Jessica of HolaYessica

    Haha this is a fun post. My dad’s family is from not too far away from Birmingham so I don’t mind the accent at all.

    I don’t like a lot of East Coast or Southern American accents, mainly because I have a really hard time understanding them. Every time I have a layover in an airport on the East Coast they think I’m not a native English speaker!

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    1. ladyofthecakes Post author

      LOL! I get that with American kids… they often don’t understand me, they’re just not used to British accents.
      I can’t stand the Andalusian accent at all. It’s not so much missing the ‘s’ off the end (though that annoys me), it’s the glottal stop(?) manoeuvre they perform when they cut the ‘s’ out in the middle of the words. Sounds like they’ve got a throat condition, like they’re about to hack up a load of phlegm. So ugly!!!!

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  7. The Polyglut

    Have you been secretly coming to my sociolinguistics lectures? Dialects, prestige, vowel sounds…it’s all I think about nowadays.

    In regards to the ‘Brummie’ accent, I would actually say that Scouse is far worse. It might just be that I am too afraid to insult my homeland (don’t worry, I don’t have the accent) but thinking about a Liverpudlian person saying the work ‘like’ is enough to make me want to gauge out my eardrums.

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  8. linnetmoss

    I used to dislike American southern accents, and did my best to eliminate mine (which was relatively mild in the first place). But my dislike of the southern twang was more a socio-cultural prejudice than a protest against the sound of the speech. Least mellifluous to my ear are the New Jersey/Brooklyn accents of the greater New York metropolitan area… But in fact I find all the variation endlessly interesting. And with accents said to be “harsh” sounding to the American ear, I find that it depends very much on the individual speaker.

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    1. ladyofthecakes Post author

      It does depend very much on the speaker, definitely.
      Re. Southern accents – I’ve got a friend from Charleston (SC), and her accent is lovely to listen to. There are certain types of Southern accents I don’t enjoy, but I’ve not had enough exposure to identify them.

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      1. linnetmoss

        Oh yes, Charleston and Savannah accents are delightful. When one penetrates further into the hinterland, they become less pleasing to the ear and less intelligible, but naturally it is all a matter of taste.

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  9. Daniela

    In Switzerland the dialects in and around Basel and St. Gallen are generally considered the most aggravating ones. To me personally it’s without a doubt the Basel dialect, it’s like nails on a chalkboard. Roger Federer has the countryside version of that dialect and augh! It hurts my ears!
    Here there isn’t much variation in accents, the Newfie is the only proper one and the French influenced ones maybe, but it’s mostly a difference between urban and rural.

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  10. suej

    Hmmm… I have to agree with you on the Brummie accent, but for me that ties with Glaswegian for sending my intestines into contortions. But I do agree that it does depend on the speaker

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  11. gina4star

    Oooh this is interesting! I think strong Brummie and Scouse are my least favourite UK accents (sorry Brummers and Scousers), although I’m also not too partial to my local “Farmer” accent either… I’m from Naaaaaarch (that’s Norwich by the by). I love love love Geordie, Irish, Welsh (oooh I wish I had a Welsh accent, I do). I think in Mexico, easily the most despised accent is that of the “Chilangos” or those of Mexico City. It can and does go right through you sometimes. Ugh.

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    1. ladyofthecakes Post author

      Ah yes, the Fennie accent, I remember it well ๐Ÿ˜‰
      No idea about accents inside Mexico, I’ve trouble distinguishing between different Latin American ones, e.g. Argentinian vs. Uruguayan – can’t tell them apart! Arg vs. Mexican, no prob, of course ๐Ÿ˜‰

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  12. Danny Breslin

    Some of my friends are from Birmingham or have family in Birmingham (North side of the city obviously – I do have some standards!), my mom was from Brum too. They dow tork loike tha!!!! Give the brummies a break (at least those from the North side of the city), surely it’s what’s inside that counts?

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    1. ladyofthecakes Post author

      Absolutely ๐Ÿ™‚ Once you start discounting people or making judgements about their level of intelligence etc. based on some regional accent they may have, you’ve totally lost it ๐Ÿ˜‰
      The sound of a language is a sensory perception, and we all have likes and dislikes, as irrational as they may be. And, as we all know, e.g. in the realms of food and music, you can grow to LOVE things you may not have appreciated all that much initially.

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  13. TBM

    There are some accents that I just can’t stand. However, my problem is I can never tell where people are from. I’m not kidding. I thought an Aussie was French the other day. My partner loves this and plays this game: guess where this person is from? I’m pretty sure I’m an idiot and now I’m sure you think that as well.

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  14. horsesofthesun

    LOL!! This reminds me of the time of this one girl I did a sport with in school -her father was Scottish. And for the life of me I can never understand what they’re saying! Nothing bad about the accent, just very heavy to my untrained ear. He was speaking to me and I kept having to ask him to repeat himself to the point of ridiculousness. I didnt want him to feel uncomfortable so I just decided to respond with “Oh ok, haha”. He said, “what are you laughing at?” LOL!! I just walked away

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  15. Kisses for the Missus

    Not to be mean but I find Cantonese-accented English to be really grating on my ears… Although I think can understand why they pronounce things a certain way, like how this girl explains it:

    I used to wonder why accented English sounded strange and I realise why after watching this:

    Speech rhythms have to do a lot with it, apparently ๐Ÿ™‚

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    1. ladyofthecakes Post author

      Good stuff ๐Ÿ˜‰
      Rhythm is important, definitely. Spanish also has a staccato machine-gun rhythm, which affords all syllables roughly equal length. English and German don’t work that way.

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  16. Veronica

    I actually like the Birmingham accent — it sounds homely, though I’ve never lived in Birmingham. I love Northumbrian too (I love everything about Northumberland though), but hate Liverpool-ese. There’s no reason for any of these likes/dislikes, just gut reactions!

    Regional accents are quite important in France, but I think it depends where you’re from which ones you despise. Northern French (ch’ti) is probably the most mocked, at least till Dany Boon made his hugely successful film about it!

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