“I loooove your accent! Where does it come from?”
It doesn’t matter how well you mean. It still blooming hurts. After ten years spent trying to translate the cryptic lip movements of Sherlock Holmes in the 1984 Granada TV version (courtesy of my aunt who religiously stored DVDs for a decade) and after another six years as a semi-native speaker in the very country were the language was born (give or take the Vikings), the very thought of not speaking in an Etonian accent makes me sick to the back of my teeth, and I usually walk away from public statements of love for my ‘lovely’ accent dragging my wounded pride behind me.
How my accent has been defined so far
‘its own kind’
‘eurotrash’ (that one made me reconsider my friendship group)
‘britmix’ (due to the fact that I picked different lingos and lisps from the different housemates and colleagues I intereacted with in my lifetime)
So this one day we attend a college dinner, one of those places where long dresses and black ties are in order if you have skin in the game, and I end up sitting near an old man with a soft spot (and a quick finger) for the silver plate of chocolates that is doing the round of the table. Now, this old man sees the plate moving away from him and asks me to shortly bring it back to him so he can pick a second chocolate, so I literally turn my neighbours arm and get the plate back. The old man thanks me, and I naively go with a “Any time, sir”. The old man stops, plonks the chocolates onto the table, and (oh no… no no no no…):
“What an interesting accent! May I ask where it comes from, young lady?”
I’m not sure whether to be more offended by the ‘young lady’ (I worked hard to earn my thirty years of age) or by the ‘interesting accent’. But then, hey, why getting offended when you can get even?
“Would you like to try and guess? Not many have succeeded.”
“Really?? Well, let me think….”
After naming pretty much any country of the Middle East, Southern America and Southern Europe, the old man doesn’t seem to give up. In the meantime, however, he has been charmed, and so have all the other dinner guests, who are intrigued by my mystery, and even when I reveal my provenience, they don’t seem to believe me: I don’t fit the stereotype they have in mind (they have no idea how much I do, and how much of it I can hide behind a pearl collier).
And then, I realise it: the fact that I do not and I cannot conform with a nationwide standard accent, be it the English RP or my standard native one, is exactly what makes me stand out amongst the crowd, what distinguishes me from anybody else in the world, what make people remember my name. My accent is not something I must fight, or embrace: it is something that shapes me in a unique way in the minds of my listeners, and something I must live with, in perennial truce, for the rest of my days. Who would ever trade that for a flower shop, Prof Higgins?*
*I have nothing against flower shops, or Prof Higgins, I actually quite liked him in Pygmalion. It’s the whole business with the rain in Spain I am not so keen on.