Thursday, 3 September 2009

Living in a Bilingual World (The One About My Accent)

'Where are you from?'

It is the question that has accompanied me for almost twelve years after I relocated to London. It probably stems, I think, from the fact that I have transposed into English a bit of my Havana rapid-fire pronunciation and the chopping or obscuring of sounds at the end of words. Yet, that's not the reason why I get asked about my country of origin sometimes. It is mainly because I sound like someone else.

I have been confused with people as varied and culturally different as one can possibly imagine. On one occasion a lady called the travel agency at which I used to work and asked to speak to the 'young Irish lad who was on the phone just now'. Obviously she was connected through to D, the only Irish guy in the office. But it was not him, not, it was the other 'guy, the one with the American twang'. After a lot of enquiries on the sales-floor where even Sherlock Holmes and his sidekick Watson were involved, the call was put through to our department, operations, and the minute I answered the phone the lady said: 'Oh, it's you, it's you I wanted to speak to!' And she booked a holiday on top. Sweet.

I have also been asked if I am from Mauritius. I could understand the query if I was speaking French before the question was formulated but since I rarely speak the Gallic language nowadays, I take it that there's a sound in my pronunciation that keeps making people think I am Francophone by birth. Ah, well, better to be confused with a sun-kissed Mauritian than a pint-sized French president who needs Cuban heels to boost his puny 5'5''.

And have I mentioned my East London accent? My drummer acquaintance R calls me 'the Cuban Cockney' because when I am in a friendly and relaxing environment I forgo all linguistic correctness and get down and dir'y with me ol' chinas. As the clock ticks by and I become more insouciant, I travel the whole gamut of accents you can find in London, from the, mainly Asian, 'blatant' to the Jamaican 'bredren'.

The different pronunciations that co-exist in the British capital fascinate me. In the same way that Germans will very often say 've' for 'we' and 'ven' for 'when' (watch Michael Ballack, Chelsea's midfielder, in one of his first interviews after joining the London team), Indians and Bangladeshis will often do the same. And I have not even factored in the regional accents one commonly finds when venturing beyond the M25. In Cumbria sheep farmers still count in the old dialect: yan, tan, tether, mether, pip (one, two, three, four, five).

Cross the ocean and USA is about to witness the unveiling of a Regional English Dictionary that has been forty-four years in the making. Time for 'whiffle-minded' (it means 'hesitating' in Maine) and 'devil-strip' (from Ohio, it means the grass border between pavement and road) to be given their own leading roles.

That's why I no longer feel self-conscious as I used to when I first arrived in the UK. At the time I brought with me a strong Boston accent, the result of many post-graduate courses taught by teachers hailing from that city in the States. With the passing of time my inflection changed from a rising intonation at the end of the sentences to a flatter and more nasal one, typical of the Cockney dialect. I began to drop my intervocalic 'Ts' and people could not Adam and Eve how swift my transition was. The apogee of this linguistic transformation came when I could comfortably switch from posh English (whilst still at the travel agency) to a more colloquial one. I knew then I had found my own stasis.

Still, it ain't 'alf bad being taking for a Queens Park Ranger sometimes, innit?

Copyright 2009

Next Post 'Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music' to be published on Sunday 6th September at 10am (GMT)


  1. This post speaks to me. I have a similar experience but with different accents and affectations. On top of that I have a slight Jonathan Ross-esque speech impediment. I was greatly relieved when people thought i was from a different place rather than having trouble speaking.

  2. Would love to hear this accent some time!

  3. Brother,

    This resonates with me ;)... I seem to unconsciously change my accent according to the person i'm talking to! ;) Sometimes friends stop me and say when did you become american, or british, or french lol...

    Love and peace to you my friend, the universal language...;)


  4. this is good and funny.
    Welcome back, London. I don't know if you just came back or been back for some days, because I have almost no time now for browsing the net...

  5. My English accent is very posh, I'm told, by anyone who speaks a UK regional accent. Only people with a good ear for music can tell that I am neither from Northumberland nor Oxbridge, but German; it's the ds and ts which give me away.

    By the way, the only place in the UK where I have never felt a foreigner is London. Too many of us live there.

  6. Glad that that you loved Malaysia, you are always welcomed here. You are in a great city, wish I've been there, but I've been to Vienna, Frankfurt not yet London :) Thanks for visiting my site. Hope you hop in again :)

  7. Okay. Now we are itching to hear a sample of your speaking voice. Please post one soon.

    I have a very typical midwestern American accent. I guess you could call it "the Walter Cronkite". And I'm not a "high talker", my voice is a tad on the mezzo side.

  8. That's a funny remark about the French pres.!
    You are probably a great mimic and can bring a touch of mischief to your discussions!
    I say "innit" too often, my best pal hails from Stratford on Avon..

  9. You are after all A Cuban In London.


  10. I love regional accents and dialect - one of my favourite words is 'clarty' meaning muddy!

    I'm a Led Zep fan too - I love listening to Kashmir best - like all the cadences and rhythm.

  11. Welcome back, my brother.
    Excelente post!
    Cuando llegué a Miami, y hablaba por telefono en uno de mis primeros trabajos como telemarketing, me preguntaban si era aleman... (candela!!!)
    Lo curioso es que no estaban del todo errados, pues en el primer lugar que tuve que aprender a desenrollar lengua fue en Netherlands.

    ;) tony.

  12. I love this glimpse of you, through the eyes and ears of others. Of course I've always known precisely what you are: A Cuban in London.

  13. Many thanks to you all for your kind comments.

    Greetings from London.

  14. great post Cuban! :-)

    thoroughly enjoyable. ya had us with the reference to M25 (to us, a rock band). luckily, our son in-law who hails from London was at hand to explain.

    we have our own accent(s) a mixture (we're told) of brooklyn-ese, bro-nix and wha ha-hoppin ta be old loisdaida (sixties lower east side) - - -

    hope to visit London sometime. meanwhile your posts do their part to ease the way.

    thanks again, friend.


  15. An interesting post. I like how you think;
    delve deeper into what someone says to you
    and why.

  16. Interesting post. I am most often mistaken for a Jamaican here in Atlanta. When I lived in NY folks guessed I was African and really good guessers zeroed in to Kenya...

    Now all I want is an audio recording of you in your accents, right here at CIL! :-) Look forward to that.

  17. I'm trying to imagine that Boston/Cuban/Cockney hybrid you are describing . . .
    But you must have a warm and lyrical voice if that woman thought that you were Irish.

    I have a Texan/Brit accent so I can relate!

  18. Fascinating read! Now I'm dying to hear your accent.

    Thank you so much for the warm and thoughtful message you left for me earlier this summer. I appreciated you kindness and the solace that came with it.

    Hope you had a wonderful summer.


  19. Many thanks for your wonderful feedback.

    Greetings from London.

  20. Nah it ain't 'alf bad, bruv :)
    Living within languages, sin fronteras... freedom is here, in the worlds we create vocally and verbally.

  21. That cracked me up, Shaista. Many thanks.

    Greetings from London.

  22. Hello London,

    Just wandering through some old posts and came to this fabulous piece. My god but you are a wonderful writer!

    A few years ago I met a man with a beautiful Arab face and name, but an accent I simply couldn't get my ears around - and I am most definitely not one of those native English speakers who goes deaf at the sound of 'my' language spoken with a 'foreign' accent.

    Took me a few days to discover that this native Algerian had learned his English while doing his doctoral studies in Glasgow. The juxtaposition of his look and his sound was just too much for North American me until I knew more of his story - then the Glaswegian fell perfectly into place.

    The rather astonishing thing was that he had started learning English at the age of 21, and there was zero, nada, rien du tout of a native language corruption in his accent.
    I suspect you are similarly gifted in your facility for languages.



Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...