Accent politics – part 1
Since I arrived in Europe, especially as I started seeing Stuart, I became increasingly conscious of my accented English. Because of a stint in California, my accent was tinged with an American accent. I noticed my flat-mouthed A (can’t, apple, bath), uber-tongue rolling R (car, far, star), and obscure T (water, better, sweater) no longer fitted with the current social and cultural environment. My Japanese colleague, who had lived in Germany longer, told me the American accent was unpopular in Germany because it sounded aggressive. That explained why my landlady was offended by me. She said I was “too Americanized.”
Growing up in the North East of Japan, I had a thick Northern accent, which was associated with provincialism and backwardness. Like everyone else moving to Tokyo from the rest of Japan, I had to adjust my accent to the standard Tokyo accent. The exceptions were people from the Kansai region, including Osaka and Kyoto. They barely changed the way they spoke. As the second-largest economy and the old capital, their accents represented power and status. They took pride in their accents as much as their regional identities. I heard my new friends’ flamboyant chatters in awe while I concealed my roots.
Adopting the Tokyo accent turned out not too tricky as my generation grew up watching TV. On the contrary, I found it impossible to speak in a Northern accent without a conversational partner with the same accent. The intonation was like a string of music that followed the same musical scale and beat. The lilt of Osaka was very different from that of the North. My Northern Japanese sounded inauthentic if the other person didn’t speak the same way, while I could always switch accents most naturally as soon as I got off the bullet train at my home prefecture.
Similarly, my conversation with Stuart didn’t feel harmonious if I kept mimicking Americans. So I gradually changed my accents and intonations by mirroring Stuart. I started with “can’t” (kaent->ka:nt), and hard-pronounced Ts and TTs, and lowered the end of questions. I also replaced some words with British English, such as aubergine (eggplant), fringe (bangs), jumper (sweater), trainers (sneakers), chips (french fries), crisps (chips), movies (films), cinema (movie theater). Eventually, I switched the writing to British, such as adding extra “u” (labour, colour, favour) and swapping “e” and “r” (theatre, centre) and extending the word length (programme).
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