Nobody has an accent

In 2008, an American friend of mine returned to live in the US after twenty years here in Britain. Recently she applied for a new job, via a two-stage interview process. It’s a job in which diversity of backgrounds between workers is important.

The man who gave her initial interview recommended her for the second stage. Excellent news. But she was bemused when he then advised her “not to bring up the subject” of where she was originally from.

When she rang the woman who was to do the second interview, she was surprised to hear a northern English accent at the other end of the phone. And it fell into place.

She herself still has a thoroughly American accent: not an Alistair Cook accent; not the certain type of American accent which can be confused with a certain type of Irish one; unambiguously American. Except to Americans.

Where I live, there are easily perceptible changes in the local accent over distances as short as five miles. But they’re only easily perceptible if you grew up locally yourself and are familiar with them. To me, my friend’s accent could only possibly be American. I would have no way of knowing from her voice that she had ever lived in Britain, though her familiarity with every aspect of British life would be a bit of a giveaway. I can’t hear a trace of anything non-American in it.

To other Americans, however, she sounds British. So British, in fact, that the man who interviewed her thought that if she didn’t mention having been born in the States, she would sound British to a British-born interviewer . . . but there’s no chance of that. No chance at all.

It was funny (though I hope she gets the job!). It was also interesting: it shows just how different our perceptions of a voice can be from someone else’s. I’m not an expert in phonetics, but it seems to me that most of us feel that we ourselves don’t have any accent, and neither do other people who speak the same as us. We don’t hear the whole of the accent: we hear the deviations in the pronunciation of the various phonemes from the way we ourselves say them. And that makes sense: the differences between us are what make us recognisable as our individual selves.

My friend’s experience, I think, is an example of that: I can only hear the features of her speech which make her sound American, whereas her interviewer could only hear the features which make her sound British.

More seriously, I think our minds can sometimes work the same way when it comes to ideas, and especially deeply-held ones such as religious or political beliefs. Conflict often comes from thinking that because one particular aspect of someone’s thinking is different from ours, we have nothing else in common either. That’s how we are able to have enemies and fight wars. But I don’t want to get into that now. I just want to share the story and be fascinated by the way spoken language works.

And lest you should think the difference in hearing English accents just applies to English speakers: in Germany, I once asked an old lady in the street for directions somewhere. She asked me “Sind Sie english oder amerikanisch?”—”Are you English or American?”. All she could hear was that I had an English-speaker’s accent, but not whether it was a British or American one.

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