in a manner of speaking…

Adam McCauley, NYTimes

Do you ever find yourself altering your speech patterns and habits depending on who you are talking to?  Everyone does this a bit, to some extent — you speak to your college pals differently than you would to your grandmother, for example, and you take on a different tone when giving a work presentation than you would when discussing Friday night restaurant options with your spouse.  Your vocabulary may change depending on your audience, and, perhaps you moderate your volume and tone as well.

But your accent — the sound of your vowels and consonants — tends to remain static, an impermeable  vocal “fingerprint” that immediately broadcasts to the world that you were raised in the American South, or South Boston or Australia or Liverpool.  We poke fun at celebrities like Madonna, who appears to deny her Middle-West American upbringing when she began speaking like a Brit.  We think she is pretending, putting on airs, or playing at something that she is not.

Here’s a confession, though — I find myself increasingly adopting certain British speech patterns, especially when talking to those with British accent.  I don’t mimic the accent (in fact, my imitation of a British accent is awful!), but I find myself imitating British intonation — the rise and fall of speech that gives accents their musicality.  Honestly, to me this feels natural, and sometimes I don’t even realize I’m doing it.  Other times, I do use British intonation purposefully.  I don’t intend for this to be an affectation, and I certainly don’t aim to disguise my American identity — rather, I think I do this out of a natural desire to connect, to communicate clearly, and assert a sense of belonging.

It’s a delicate line, though, between fitting in and falsely contriving to be something that you are not — this is a unique and interesting challenge of living in a country that is not your own.


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