I was in Dublin this week listening to the radio when I chanced upon an interview with a Professor Jeffery Kallen on the Mooney Show on RTE Radio 1.
Looking at the issue of whether the Irish and British are starting to sound more American, the presenter Derek Mooney starts by reminding listeners of the speech patterns of Vicky Pollard, the British schoolgirl character in the comedy series Little Britain.
Attributing her catch-phrases, such as ‘Yeah but no but yeah’, ‘Shut up!’, and ‘Oh my god! I sooo don’t believe you said that!’ to the influence of American English, Mooney asks the professor of Linguistics and Phonetics (Trinity College Dublin) if there might be a trend amongst the young people of Ireland to sound more American.
Although we’ve started spelling ‘jail’ with a ‘j’ rather than a ‘g’, as in ‘gaol’, most people in Ireland and Britain still say ‘lift’ rather than ‘elevator’. So while in some ways, we might be influenced by American English, in other ways, we are still holding on to our own ways of saying things.
In an example with the use of the word ‘like’, Professor Kallen demonstrates how a combination of old and new usages might be assimilated into the local language.
The Irish often use the word ‘like’ in three ways:
- to quote – “She was like ‘Go away!’ and I was like ‘Shut up!’’
This American way of using ‘like’ was picked up in Ireland before it caught on in Britain;
- to hedge/to soften – “I’d rather…like…go to the cinema.”
- end of the sentence discourse marker – e.g. “That was really stupid like.”
This localized use of ‘like’ can be widely heard in Irish English and Scottish English.
The professor questions if perhaps what we are doing is heading towards a more globalized form of English, in addition to our localized forms of the language, in what seems to be a linguistic version of ‘glocalization’.
However, as if to quell a certain fear, Mooney seeks confirmation by asking, ‘Is there any danger that we’ll lose our own accent?’
Judging by Mooney’s discourse, there is perhaps the loaded assumption that the potential disappearance of the Irish English of today would be a terrible thing, especially if erosion is due to an influx of American English.
This sentiment is echoed by celebrities such as Simon Cowell who famously accused Jedward of having faux-American accents during their X-factor auditions. The advice given to them was ‘Be yourself!’
This seems to assume that by adopting certain Americanisms or American ways of pronouncing a word, one is being fake and being less truthful to oneself.
Similarly, in Singapore, people joke about Singaporeans who go on holiday for a week and return with a foreign (read: British, American, or Australian) accent.
So what is it about the change in our fellow countrymen’s accents that annoys us so much?
Is it a fear of rejection? Is it a slient jab at one’s roots and an indication that they do not want to be part of us any more?
Does adopting a foreign way of speaking necessarily mean that one is ‘losing the run of oneself’ and forgetting one’s roots?
Can the way one speaks change over the course of one’s life and yet still stay true to being oneself?
What causes such change?
Many might suggest that it is the media and the domination of Hollywood’s exports that is to blame. Professor Kallen however believes that the number one influence is still face-to-face communication – who we know and who we talk to. The world is indeed a lot smaller than it was just decades ago, and young people are more mobile these days. They travel around a lot more and meet people from all over the world.
Very often, a change in one’s language use is a result of a combination of different factors. We hear things on TV and films, and when we meet someone who talks that way, we start to pick it up more easily. We sometimes do that in order to accommodate our conversation partners so as to establish common ground with them.
Others might consciously change their way of speaking in order to fit in and assimilate into a community. After all, one’s accent and language use is often seen as a cultural and social capital that could help us gain entry into certain communities of practice.
There is often this unspoken assumption that if you stick to your accent, you are down to earth, true to your roots, and possess strength of character.
Yet, it would be rather inflexible, and even stupid of me to insist on wearing my favourite pair of jeans to a job interview for a managerial position at a bank despite considering jeans to be a huge part of who I am and how I see myself. Would my decision to wear a suit for the interview be seen as evidence of a weak character? If ditching my jeans for a suit does not make me less of who I am, why should an evolution of my accent be so?
Let us take this argument to include the non-native speakers of English.
How does the man on the street in Britain perceive the immigrant who speaks English with a strong accent of his own?
Would he be considered as not having learnt proper English?
Why is he not encouraged to ‘be yourself’ and preserve his accent?
What about learners who hesitate adopting a British or American pronunciation for fear of being mocked by their peers? Would their English teacher still insist on drilling them with the connected speech features of British English?
What if you are learning English to speak to other non-native speakers of English? Should all members of such a community of practice speak with a British accent? Should they all be encouraged to speak localized varieties of English? Or should they move towards a globalized version of the language?
Would this globalized version be closer to American English due to the socioeconomic power of the country? Am I spelling ‘localize’ and ‘globalize’ with a ‘z’ because I am keen to get rid of the red squiggly line under my spelling of ‘localise’ and ‘globalise’ provided by the auto-correct of the American-owned Microsoft’s Word programme? Am I weak for not tolerating those red lines?
There could millions of reasons why we choose to use the language that we use.
And it might not be as straightforward as ‘He speaks with an American accent only because he is pretentious and wants to sound cool’ or ‘He is a product of watching too much American TV and isn’t strong enough to resist the influence’.
It is without doubt that as society changes, language evolves. And the way we as individuals use language evolves too. The dynamic and fluid nature of how we code-switch from one variety to another, one accent to another, is characteristic of global communication today.
So let us not wag our fingers at those who speak English as a foreign language who have chosen to preserve their own accents…and let us not judge our fellow countrymen who have adopted foreign ways of saying things.
Identity is a complex and ever-changing construct, and let us not constrain it by trying to fit individuals into pre-conceived boxes.
About English Teaching professional’s regular blogger:
Chia Suan Chong is a General English and Business English teacher and teacher trainer, with a degree in Communication Studies (Broadcast and Electronic Media) and an MA in Applied Linguistics and English Language Teaching from King’s College London.
A self-confessed conference addict, she spends a lot of her time tweeting (@chiasuan/@ETprofessional), Skyping, and writing. You can find out more about her on her blogsite: http://chiasuanchong.com