You are listening to the radio or the phone rings, and all you can hear is a voice. You can deduce:
• what sex the person is
• what age the person is
• what race (not ethnic group) they belong to
• whether the person smokes
• whether the person is overweight
That is about voice tone. In addition, there is accent, which is about modifying voice tone, differences in pronunciation, stress on vowels or constants, and intonation. It has nothing to do with which words you use. From accent we can deduce:
• which country the person comes from
• often, which region or town the person come from
• if English is not the person’s first language, which country he or she learnt it in
• if English is the person’s first language, which country he or she come from
• which social class the person comes from
No matter how well turned out you may look, the big give away is when you open your mouth. While the first purpose is to communicate, your accent communicates more than you think. If your accent is so thick that no one can understand you except your personal locals, you will have problems.
In France, the nearer you are to Paris the more sophisticated you are presumed to be. In Italy, the nearer to Milan the better. I practiced my Italian in Rome and Napoli, so I have the dreaded southern accent. I learnt Spanish mainly from South Americans, but had to go to Madrid to get the ‘official’ Spanish Castilian accent.
In the United States, the talking speed gives it away - the lazy drawl from south of the Mason-Dixon line does you no favors in New York. On the other hand, any British accent in the United States makes people think you are more intelligent!
With Arabic, it is possible to tell from someone’s accent which country and area they are from. Modern standard Arabic is considered high prestige. It is not used in day-to-day conversation, but as a language of political and social media programs and as a written language. Its pronunciation varies between regions, so the accent it is spoken with still gives everything away. The more city-centric the accent, the more prestigious.
In England, the only accent you ever heard on radio and TV until the Beatles came along in the 1960s was Received Pronunciation (RP), which still enjoys high social prestige in Britain. It is the accent of those with power, money, influence and undeserved privilege. Only 3 percent of people in Britain are RP speakers, including The Queen. Nowadays, you can hear many cleaned-up regional accents on British public broadcasting.
Second- or third-generation Commonwealth immigrants often have the local accent of the place in which they live with no trace of ethnic origins. Some areas of England have accents considered to be dreadfully working class: cockney (east London), Birmingham and anything northern. “You can take the girl out of Essex, but you can’t take Essex out of the girl,” is a reflection on how that accent is perceived.
A famous Liverpool-accented quote is from the Beatles at the London Palladium before the Queen, saying: “Will the people in the cheaper seats clap your hands? And for the rest of you, if you’ll just rattle your jewellery.’
A great failure of the teaching of English as a foreign language is the teaching of pronunciation and accent. If you are Indian and want to learn to speak English to other Indians, should you be learning to speak the language with an Indian accent or the Queen’s English?
If you are in Dubai, it is Queen’s English you need. I am blessed with British upbringing, and my constant travel and radio work has tempered my regional accent. It is in demand from training companies. However, it can still cause problems as attendees are just not used to it.
One way to get the accent in line with your slick visual image is to spend time with Brits. Another is to take elocution lessons. Even the Aussies and Kiwis want to sound more British - who can blame them?SHOW MORE