Accent chameleons

Accent chameleons

Fri 04 May 2018 10:38 AM

Accents have never been my forte. When I was 13, a haughtier, more New Yorker version of me, charged with the occasional cawfee and wata slip-ups, took off for summer camp in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. Three weeks later, much to my embarrassment and to the amusement of my friends, “y’all” had become a staple of my everyday speak.

In adulthood, I have developed a knack for inadvertently mimicking people after a few hours of one-on-one conversation. More often than not, my unintentional accent shift appears more mocking in tone than a good-hearted involuntary imitation. Of course, absorbing accents like a sponge is rather amusing in an English-speaking context: American English is more homogenous when compared to the many dialects present in Italy’s distinct regions. Growing up in the States, my accent copycatting was more situational than a full-on linguistic transformation.

Illustration by Leo Cardini

In Italy, my family raised me with an accent most easily identified as laziale: neutral but with a slight preference for Roman vowels. During my first year in Florence, I found my c’s disappearing here and there, my t’s and g’s taking that soft, buttery tone that I so admired. My family teased these newly acquired sounds, erupting into laughter at my pronunciation of the word concava while discussing the origins of scarpetta at the dinner table.

At times, I have felt irritated by my inability to capture an Italian accent as my own, as if having been raised stateside prohibits concretizing my Italianness in language. In Tuscany, I unwillingly revert back to a Roman accent when using sarcasm, a strange part of my being “kind of Roman” that seems to have stuck.

Contrary to my fears, this accent-sponge phenomenon, a quasi-bidialectalism, has nothing to do with a poorly developed sense of self. Studies on accent mimics call it the “chameleon effect,” which explains wandering accents as a subconscious survival instinct, causing one to appear as less threatening to their given audience. In short, the more you try to relate to someone, the more you subconsciously mimic their ways. Other studies have also linked the issue to social mobility, explaining that adherence to a certain accent is linked to patriotism and social identity.

Changing accents as often as I change homes reflects my lack of national identity. Yet it also sheds light on how different accents in Italy are perceived from the outside. A more Tuscan than neutral accent has led to more jokes exchanged at my local coffee bars and my Italianness now seems more generally accepted by Tuscans, who now take much longer before asking me about my origins. The truth is, I am from neither here nor there, and no Italian accent fully captures my place of origin. But in Tuscany, like in all of Italy, language and accent are at the forefront of identity formation. Here, your Italian inflection seems to be sufficient evidence for detecting native land. Generally speaking, a foreigner with perfect Italian is received with a mixture of awe and curiosity. If to the average Tuscan a Florentine accent denotes being Florentine, a foreigner with missing c’s perhaps overthrows general consensus, disregarding that certain shades of Italian accents are reserved for locals only.

Perhaps the perceived exclusivity of strong regional accents creates barriers. Or maybe, here in Florence, the growing international community is simply changing how language is used to determine identity. Regardless, with third-culture kids and nationless nomads evermore on the rise, accent chameleons are surely here to stay. And I, for one, will proudly embrace my growing inability to pronounce the letter “c”.


Learning the lingo

Language exchange happy hours take place every Wednesday at locations that alternate between the likes of outdoor favourite Santarosa Bistrot and trendy Italian Tapas. Speakeasy Multilingual Happy Hours bring together language learners and native speakers, creating opportunities for language learners to practice speaking while having fun and meeting new people, including special events like mini cooking classes at the Food Studio (next one on May 9). Over 40 people on average come to the happy hours every week from about 12 countries from nearly every continent. English and Italian dominate with a smattering of other languages. The next happy hour will be at Food Studio on May 9, 7.30-10.30pm.

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