- Books, Literature, and Writing
Accent & Accentuation: Celebrating Diversity, in Language & therefore in People
"One must be careful what one says, mustn't one?"
It started with a Question
A fellow writer on HubPages and friend of mine, Eric Dierker, asked me a question, ‘Is it possible that we are defined by the words we use?’
In answer to his question, I wrote this,
‘I think others define us by the way we talk, sometimes unjustly, and I think we are defined by our accents because others can perceive our origins. Our characters, though, are defined by the words we choose, for good or for bad.
We are often judged to be 'educated' if we use 'big' words! I would argue that it can be arrogant, showing off, and using a few well-chosen words will ensure everyone understands. Sometimes, though, we have to use words to define specific technicalities or differences in meaning.’
I would add that, in Britain, we are even now judged on a class basis, often due to whether or not we have a general Southern accent, the ‘Queen’s English’. Fortunately, that’s not so common as it was but it still happens. At any rate, even with a southern accent, like mine, we no longer sound like the Queen! Have you ever heard recordings of her first speeches on radio or television - all high and squeaky?!
So language labels us, then regional accents place us within that language, adding character and vibrancy.
I’m proud to say that I have a specific accent which defines which part of the South (near Brighton, Sussex) I was born and brought up in, albeit specific and only recognised by my regional compatriots! Other southern accents are far more recognisable to other Brits.
Let’s look at what accent means and how it can be interpreted.
Accent, the noun, can mean:
- a distinctive way of pronouncing a language, especially one associated with a particular country, area, or social class, e.g. ”a strong American accent”
- a distinct emphasis given to a syllable or word in speech by stress or pitch, e.g. ”the accent falls on the middle syllable"
- a mark on a letter, typically a vowel, to indicate pitch, stress, or vowel quality, e.g. ”a circumflex accent"
- an emphasis on a particular note or chord, e.g. ”short fortissimo accents”
- a special or particular emphasis, e.g. ”the accent is on participation"
- a feature which gives a distinctive visual emphasis to something, e.g. ”blue woodwork and accents of red"
Accent, the verb, can mean:
- emphasize (a particular feature), e.g. ”fabrics which accent the background colours in the room”
- play (a note or beat) with emphasis, e.g. ”the quick tempo means there is less scope for accenting offbeat notes"
late Middle English (in the sense ‘intonation’): from Latin accentus ‘tone, signal, or intensity’ (from ad- ‘to’ + cantus ‘song’), translating Greek prosōidia ‘a song sung to music, intonation’.
Notice the emphasis on music! This gives us the sense of intonation, the music of language which varies a great deal from region to region.
We are said to have a ‘brogue’ if our accent is a strong one. A Yorkshire brogue is instantly recognisable; strong vowels and warm pronunciation. A west-country brogue is soft, slow and rounded. Any accent has its own intonation. Some can be lilting and musical, some are harder and not so kind to the ear, some seem lazy, some entrance. They might be splattered with words from a local dialect.
It’s possible to place or at least guess at people’s home region, or even town, from a knowledge of regional accents. If you’ve ever seen the film ‘My Fair Lady’ with Rex Harrison and Audrey Hepburn, you’ll know that this Professor of Phonetics could pinpoint to ‘within a street’ which part of London someone came from. That’s credible, especially when applied to earlier life in London when people did not move out of their region so often.
Intonation can also indicate mood. Say ‘I don’t think so’ in a pensive way, in an impatient way, in an authoritative way. See what I mean?
Where does s/he come from?
It’s fun to place where others come from, whether nationally or internationally. Can you place a person from a specific country in Europe when they speak in English? French, Spanish and Italian accents are fairly easy to distinguish. The French have their distinctive throaty ‘r’ and difficulty with ‘th’, the Spanish a ‘c’ pronounced like a voiceless ‘th’ and difficulty with ’s’, using a short ‘e’ in front of it (I come from eSpain), the Italians tend to put a short ‘ah’ sound at the end of many English words.
As for origins within Britain, the Scots accent has many distinctive sounds, the Welsh is musical with extended vowels, the Irish is also musical but rounded with distinctive phrases added such as ‘I go there often, so I do’ or ‘to be sure’.
Of course, there are some who have an expert ear for sound, can pick up an accent and run with it as their own, though it’s rare to be able to completely camouflage the original.
A Diverse Team Working Together
There is a detective series on television here, called ‘New Tricks’, about three retired policemen working under a female boss, in a team called UCOS (unsolved crime and open case squad). The setting is London. Each character comes from a different area of Britain, two from the South, two from the North.
The characters are:
Gerry Standing (Dennis Waterman) - a cheeky ‘cockney’ lad, ex Detective Sergeant, who has an East London accent. The actor is not a bona fide cockney as he was born in Clapham, South London, so not within the sound of Bow bells. He does, however, have the accent to suit.
Brian Lane (Alun Armstrong) - a north-country man, ex Detective Inspector and reformed alcoholic with OCD who provides much of the humour and pathos in the series. Armstrong was born in County Durham and has the accent to prove it.
Jack Halford (James Bolam) - also a north-country man, ex Detective Chief Superintendent, who is the calming force of the group. Bolam was born in Sunderland, County Durham and has an accent closer to that of Newcastle-upon-Tyne though he is not a Geordie (you have to be born on Tyneside for that).
Their boss is Detective Superintendent Sandra Pullman (Amanda Redman) - a vivacious, gritty woman who keeps the three lads in check. Redman was born in Brighton, Sussex and I can hear my own accent in her voice (I’m a Sussex girl, born in Shoreham-by-Sea, west of Brighton). I found out the other day that Amanda Redman went to the same secondary school as me (Hove Country Grammar), a few years later than I did. I don’t remember the name though our time there probably overlapped.
My point in mentioning this series, is that they are diverse characters with diverse accents, all working together and getting on well. Their differences add to the charm of the stories, give them separate identities and the mix of language woven into the action provides humour, attitude and fascination.
Maybe an added reason why I like it so much is that I can identify with them all. Brighton is not that far from London, my grandmother came from Durham and my Granddad was a Geordie!
Brighton (west to Shoreham-by-Sea) - 50 miles N on A23 to London
County Durham & Newcastle upon Tyne
Graphics denoting Sound
Accents on paper, graphics known as diacritics, can be added above or below some letters in other languages, or words derived from other languages. For instance, English uses ‘rôle’, ‘façade’, ‘café’, all from French.
- The circumflex above the ‘o’ indicates a rounded vowel sound instead of the usual French short vowel sound. It can denote an original missing 's', e.g. hôtel (hostel)
- The cedilla below the ‘c’ gives it a soft sound, like ’s’, rather than a hard sound as in ‘cat’.
- The ‘e’ with an acute accent (diagonally upwards left-right) indicates the pronunciation which sounds like the name of our letter ‘a’.
If we accentuate a word, we are putting an emphasis on the whole word, or on a syllable of that word, the latter often changing the meaning. For example:
contrary: It was contrary to expectations that he failed the test.
contrary: She was contrary, never doing what we asked or agreeing with what we said.
I’ll give you a few more to consider: present, research, appropriate (the last ‘a’ changes).
Diacritic Marks (graphic accents)
The usual diacritic marks in French are:
the acute ⟨´⟩, e.g. école (school)
the grave ⟨`⟩, e.g. très (very)
the circumflex ⟨ˆ⟩, e.g. rôle (used in English)
the dieresis ⟨¨⟩, often referred to as the German umlaut, e.g. Noël (also used in English)
and the cedilla ⟨¸⟩, e.g. français (French)
Diacritics have no impact on the primary alphabetical order.
The English language has no diacritics other than those used on words which we have adopted from other languages.
'The person who has lifted my bronze cooking pot is utterly accursed. I give him to the Temple of Sulis, whether woman or man, whether slave or free, whether boy or girl, and let him who has done this spill his own blood into the vessel itself.'
Do you get an idea of the person's mood, his attitude and his sense of outrage? What kind of person do you think he is?
Choosing our Words Carefully
Therefore, the importance of choosing our words, with or without accentuation, is paramount. We can infer mood, intent, danger or affability by the way we talk to, or about, someone. We impart something of ourselves with each word we utter; we portray who we are, the structure of our character and the person we wish to be. Expressions and body language go hand in hand with language to make our intentions clearer but always remember, a word uttered can never be retracted, only apologised for!
My final answer to Eric, then, is ‘Yes, I do think we are defined by the words we use.’ Listen to those around you, family, friends, acquaintances and complete strangers in the street. What do you make of snippets of conversation, or maybe the odd word directed at you? How many times do you sum up that person’s character or mood? We provide the outside world with an overview of who we are as soon as we open our mouths!
There is a proviso. You may catch a person on a bad day or an extra good day. They might have had some bad news, they might want to impress, so do not be too judgemental with your appraisal. The fact remains that we make a split-second opinion of whether or not we like someone. They say that within the first 10 seconds of a conversation, one will sum up the other and first impressions count. I would say do not be too hasty.
Why is Diversity Important?
Because of the individuality of words, accents, people’s identities, it’s vital to keep the diversity of language alive. Why?
People are individuals. They have their own personality, their own tastes, their own way of doing things. We are diverse. Language goes hand in hand with that diversity.
The areas in which we live are often extremes; North, South, East or West; chilly, cold, gelid, temperate, hot, humid, throat-scrapingly dry; countryside, hamlet, village, town, city, metropolis. The exciting bit is that there are words belonging to all those, individual words with their own personalities, with their own uses and effects.
Our local environment, be it where we were born or where we’ve settled, is dear to us. There is a sense of pride in our chosen surroundings. That is what gives us our identity, something which is, in turn, essential for our self-esteem. We need to belong, to nurture, extending that notion to helping improve life by working together with our neighbours.
The next turn of the wheel brings us to realising our identity, then extending that to a tolerance of others’ identities. Identity encompasses customs and traditions, beliefs and cultures. An added bonus is that local accents and dialects enrich our language. It is a snowball of language and life that gathers momentum the more we use it.
Diversity of Landscape influences LanguageClick thumbnail to view full-size
First Two Verses of 'Accentuate the Positive'
You've got to accentuate the positive
Eliminate the negative
Latch on to the affirmative
Don't mess with Mister In-Between
You've got to spread joy up to the maximum
Bring gloom down to the minimum
Have faith or pandemonium's
Liable to walk upon the scene
Accentuate the Positive
You probably know the song ‘Accentuate the Positive’, music by Harold Arlen and the lyrics by Johnny Mercer, published in 1944. It explains that accentuating the positive is the key to happiness.
Accentuating the positive is always a good idea. Philosophers advocate it, educationists advocate it, preachers advocate it (well, most of them anyway). Emphasising the good in someone, concentrating on people’s good traits and rewarding positive attitudes.
Use your words to propel others towards the good, warn them of the bad, amuse them, entertain, delight and inform. One word alone can construct an image; it can convey subtlety, it can show you care about what’s around you. Use words which reflect your heritage and surroundings and that subtlety is enhanced; we are all the better for that richness.
Enjoy your words, choose them carefully in speech and in writing. Weave a rich vocabulary into your texts. You never know who’s going to read them and you should be proud to distribute them to all.
http://ericdierker.hubpages.com - I urge you to visit Eric's site; his writing is inspiring and profound.
Have a look at this hub for a wonderful read on a similar theme:
'My Fair Lady' is a musical based on George Bernard Shaw's 'Pygmalion', with book and lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner and music by Frederick Lowe. The film starred Audrey Hepburn as the flower-girl and Rex Harrison as the Professor of Phonetics who bet a colleague he could pass off the flower-girl as a 'lady'.
Do you have a regional accent?
What accent do you have? (please be more specific in the comments)
Words Define Us
Do you agree that we are defined by the words we use?
© 2015 Ann Carr