What does my accent say about me?

21:05, Jul 03 2013

Is your accent, to you, part of your identity? Or just a by-product of having grown up wherever you have? This question was pushed to the fore for me, by an odd experience I had recently.

I went to interview New Zealanders for a story to run in an American publication. Objectively writing about my country and countrymen, for foreigners, was a first for me. With the people I set up each interview with, I openly referenced my birth country for an in. Because if you've got it, flaunt it, right?

But in one case, I ended up talking with a New Zealander who didn't know I was coming. I was introduced to him as "James Robinson, from American publication X". We spoke for 15 minutes, just the two of us, and he didn't pick up once on the fact that I was also a New Zealander. I let a couple of his comments slide out of confusion and before I knew it, I was too deep into the interview to correct him. It was like when a boss gets your name wrong and you wait just a day too long to let him know otherwise.

He used a lot of collective pronouns when talking about this mystical club of New Zealanders, a window to which was obviously being opened to me for the first time. I bristled inside, probably childishly. I felt as though I was being shunned from the team, my membership having expired.

I got home and immediately sought to reaffirm with LP that my New Zealand accent was still audible. I knew that really, I still very much have an accent, slightly blunted as it may be. This was just one guy who didn't pick up on it, who wasn't concentrating, or something.

I kind of overreacted, but in that instant, it felt important to me that he noticed my accent. Before this, I've never once considered my accent as being anything other than something that was cast upon me, a quirk of geography and nothing close to being defining of who I am.


I don't know what our accent says about us as a country. I do know that it probably says something, right? I make judgments on other countries based on their accents. Australians have a slightly harsher and harder accent than ours. It's a little more certain of itself, a little cockier and nasal. Which sounds about right.

The British accent in its different iterations takes me to either a quaint Downton Abbey-like aristocratic scene, scored by the old TV One, Montana Sunday Theatre theme, or some working class, Coronation Street-esque pub scene.

A French or an Italian accent casts my mind to some smoky European café, dishes piling over the table following a delicious meal, a full ashtray and half-drunken espresso cups scattered haphazardly. There are too many different American accents, but each one of them holds a stereotype in my head.

It's simple, but I'm just being honest.

I'm not sure what I'm taking ownership of when I seek desperately to hold on to my accent. I don't know what people think of us when they hear it. I know that Americans find the accent a little endearing and (I can only assume) think it links us into being taken for shuffling, bumbling and casual small-town folk. 

As New Zealanders we don't have a lot of marked regional variations in our spoken language. It's not like England or America, where how someone talks can signify huge differences in class and geography.

I don't want to lose my New Zealand accent. But I haven't been away too long. I don't know how it will change and warp with time, how the local twang will meld with the Yankee-brogue over several years or decades and turn into something indistinguishable.

Because even if it's not clear to me what my accent in itself means, or what it signifies, you can't deny that our accents in themselves are like a road map for where we've been.

So in some ways, maybe my oversensitivity at my accent not getting picked up on by a fellow Kiwi is recognition of this, self-consciousness that as I log more and more time abroad and my links to home cool, my accent will morph toward something shapeless and unidentifiable.

My accent overseas may often lead me into frustration and exasperation but I've come to realise that I'm not quite ready to lose it. 

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