Saturday 10 September 2011

Accent cosmetics

The British cartoonist and caricaturist George du Maurier had the following to say about language, in his 1891 novel Peter Ibbetson:
Language is a poor thing. You fill your lungs with wind and shake a little slit in your throat, and make mouths, and that shakes the air; and the air shakes a pair of little drums in my head – a very complicated arrangement, with lots of bones behind – and my brain seizes your meaning in the rough. What a roundabout way, and what a waste of time.
Long-winded convolution it may be, but, as far as the production of speech is concerned, one could also say that shaking air and making mouths is pretty much it. All of us who use spoken languages do this, because this is what producing spoken languages through human vocal tracts is all about.

Phonation and articulation (the fancy names for ‘shaking and mouthing things around the vocal tract’) give us the accents that we all have, whether we’re monolingual or multilingual. Like the remainder of our languages, our accents are those of other people, that we came to make ours. Some of us may spend our whole lives sounding the way we did when we first started making intelligible sounds, without knowing, or caring, that we sound in particular ways. Some of us may become aware that we do sound in particular ways and others sound in other ways. We may then want to go on sounding the way we always have, or we may want to adopt new ways of sounding. The choice to do one or the other is often discussed together with something called “identity”, a word that usually, and intriguingly, crops up in its singular form, for reasons I’ll attempt to work out some other day. Feeling a need to do cosmetics to our accents, whether in a new language or in a new variety of a language that we already speak, means wishing to sound like different people from the people we have so far sounded like. But it still means sounding like people. People who, like us, have vocal tracts.

Wanting to sound like someone else is like wanting to start a workout programme. The raw material is there, what makes the difference is the training. Our bodies, vocal tracts included, naturally set into the habits we’ve trained them to set into. Aspiring joggers, say, won’t go much beyond aspiring by investigating which body parts they should move where, when and how, and by satisfying themselves of the results which can be achieved by doing so. Likewise, speakers won’t change their speech simply by being relayed information on (how to talk about) the anatomy and physiology of vocal tract parts. Understanding how things work is the intellectual bit of learning, which, as far as languages are concerned, has become near-synonymous with learning them. Add to that the fixation with print found in most formal schooling, which persuades us that languages are visual things, and it is easy to understand why we all forget to use our ears, and the remainder of our bodies, when we set our minds to learning languages.

Speaking languages engages our bodies. To see what I mean about vocal tract workouts, have a look and a hear at The Diva and the Emcee, produced by the University of Southern California (Electrical Engineering and Linguistics). This other video has no sound, so you may try to guess what the speaker is saying. And yes, that massive thing bumping all over the place inside your mouth is your tongue. Small wonder languages came to be known as “tongues”, right?

So how do we change habits? Well, human bodies come to jog and human vocal tracts come to sound when humans practise jogging and sounding. Watching and listening do help, in that our so-called mirror neurons have been found to activate motor brain centres when we do so. But watching and listening help only as much as watching a play you wish to be able to perform, or listening to a song you wish to be able to sing. As the videos above show, we can’t see most of what goes on inside vocal tracts. In addition, eyes and ears can trick one another, as the McGurk Effect also shows.

Changing habits is all about doing new things. This is what makes you realise that you have muscles (and joints, and tendons) that you had no idea were there, and this is what makes you wake up one morning doing what you never thought you were able to do. For better or for worse, of course: when I started speaking Swedish, my English-speaking friends reported to me that I had also started speaking English with a Swedish accent. Good news, all in all: to paraphrase Blaise Pascal’s aphorism, in his Pensées, “Le corps a ses raisons, que la raison ne connaît pas”.

Wanting to sound like someone else requires willpower in an additional sense: the commitment to dismiss the usual naysayer arguments that you’re too old to be able to learn new tricks, or that the languages and/or accents that you already speak are too different from the one(s) you wish to speak, or (my special favourite) that your accent has “fossilised”. I’ll talk about this next time.

© MCF 2011

Next post: Multilingual accents. Saturday 17th September 2011.

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