Sunday, January 21, 2007

Accents (and Hillary)

After I read this, I took the test and found this. Then my colleague, Pastor Jeff took the test and said:
I do tend to pick up accents from the people I'm around. Is there a name for that?
A commenter told him:
Chameleonitis. Oprahitis [she does the same thing].

In sales, it's a technique called mirroring. [Not just words, but also body language.]

In theology, it's probably closer to "verbal empathy" and indicates a "sympathetic ear."

I think it's kinda' nice.

But it sometimes can indicate a weak self-image, I think.

Or, it can be calculating.

And, fair or not, the latter possibility made me think of Hillary Clinton. Clinton was born and raised in Illinois, then went to college and law school in the Northeast. In other words, all her formative years were spent in the North. She lived there into her thirties.

But when she was First Lady of Arkansas and even during the 1992 campaign, she spoke with an accent that suggested she was from the South.

Suddenly however, when Inauguration Day, 1993, came, Clinton spoke like a Northerner again.

In fairness to Mrs. Clinton, when I travel to some places, I find myself unconsciously mimicking the natives. I exhibit chameleonitis.

For example, people in the part of rural northwestern Ohio where I lived for six years have an interesting accent and use words and phrases in ways different from what I experienced growing up in central Ohio. "We'll see once," they might say. Because the people there are so dear to me, I find myself picking up on their phrasings and cadences whenever I speak with them.

The accent in the northwestern lower peninsula of Michigan, where we lived for a year, shares some things in common with the accents heard in Canada and Minnesota. In addition, some of the lilts you hear in conversation there echo the Norwegian language spoken by many of the area population's ancestors. When I'm with people from that area, I mimick them a bit.

On the other hand, whenever I travel in the South, I speak more Northern, enunciating more clearly, without my usual sloppy elisions. I work harder at being understood and I listen more carefully. This may be because of two incidents from my travels in the South.

The first happened in a Subway sandwich shop in rural Tennessee about ten years ago. A friendly young woman had already taken the orders of my wife and two kids. For them, everything went without a hitch. But to my embarrassment, I found it hard to understand the woman. I kept having to ask her to repeat her questions of me. I asked her three times what she meant when she asked, "White or wheat bread?" I could have sworn that she'd asked, "Shall we pray?" (When I told my family about that later, they exploded with laughter and they've ridden me about it ever since!)

Another time, we were at Monticello, the home of Thomas Jefferson. We were near the stables and slave quarters, when a woman standing next to me asked a question. "I'm sorry, ma'am, what did you say?" She repeated the question. I still didn't understand and asked her to pose it one more time. She did. I was baffled. And embarrassed. Finally, another tourist came up to us and told the woman, "Yes, that's a well." Question answered, the first woman walked away. The one who came to my rescue could see that I was mortified and afraid that I might have hurt the first woman and so explained to me, "I'm from Saint Louis and I've lived in Virginia for thirty years. But there are times when even I can't understand."

At any rate, those incidents have incited me to try to speak with absolute clarity when I travel South.

Pastor Jeff claims not to have any accent. That brought to memory a comment made by Jimmy Carter during the 1976 campaign. Speaking at a rally in the South, Carter asked the crowd, "Won't it be nice to have a President who doesn't have an accent?"

Nobody thinks that the way they talk has anything unique about it. Probably because we're surrounded by people who speak just like us, especially in our young years.

Winston Churchill once famously quipped that the United States and England were two peoples divided by a common language. That same division is evident in the varied accents that exist in America, in spite of the homogenization of mass media.

That's actually a neat thing. I love the diversity of accents you can hear in America, even the variations that exist between different communities.

You know what they say.

[THANKS TO AMBA for linking to this post.]


Anonymous said...


I really don't have much of an accent -- but I can mimic them all pretty well.

I love the story of your ordering confusion in Tennessee and Virginia. Having spent a bit of time in the South, I can understand just what you're talking about.

And I love the Jimmy Carter quote -- obviously spoken with tongue in cheek.

Thanks for the link!

Mark Daniels said...

You're welcome, Jeff.


Anonymous said...

Great post. I have exhibited "chameleonitis" before as well and wondered if it were a neurosis or something. You're suggestion that it could be a symptom of weak self-esteem hit a nerve, too.

I have a story about dealing with the notorious Southern accent. My wife used to work in an office that dealt with people all over the country. They would call in and register for whatever it is the company offered (it's been a while and really doesn't matter anyway). One of the questions my wife had to ask was "what city are you from". This particular woman had a particularly heavy Southern accent and when the city question was asked replied with what distinctly sounded like "Dumb." My wife, with increasing frustration but grace, kept asking her to repeat her answer. Every time it came back, "Dumb!" Finally my wife said, "perhaps you could spell it for me." The now angry woman replied "D-U-R-H-A-M! DUMB!" My wife could hardly wait to hang up so she could burst out laughing!