Beautiful Accent: How do We Measure (up)? Featured

by on Monday, 24 November 2014 Comments

I recently chanced upon a comment about a Chicago celebrity: "She was a very sophisticated person and has a beautiful French accent." It then occurred to me that remarks about "beautiful accent" are both banal and intriguing: we hear them so often that we seldom wonder about the underlying assumptions beneath them, and they seem innocuous enough for people not to censor themselves, but that is precisely why they can shed some candid light on the world where we live.

In the case of the accent native speakers have when speaking their own language, it may be politically correct to say that all accents are equally beautiful, but the reality is some accents are more equal than others. Statistically, "beautiful" is more frequently associated with certain accents. This phenomenon might be conveniently explained away by the number of their native speakers, thus if we more often hear about "beautiful American accent" than "beautiful Australian accent", we may think that it is because there are more Americans than Australians, but this wishful thinking does not explain why we are almost as likely to encounter "beautiful American accent" as "beautiful British accent", and there are so much more occurrences of "beautiful British accent" than "beautiful Chinese accent". Perhaps China is too far away from predominantly English speaking countries for such comments to show up in English, but we also seldom hear about "beautiful Mexican accent", or "beautiful Canadian accent". Needless to say, such statements usually overlook variations of accents among people from the same country.

Even trickier is the "beautiful accent" that originates from cross-linguistic influence of multilingual people's previous language(s), or foreign accent, such as Penelope Cruz's "beautiful Spanish accent", or the Chicago celebrity's "beautiful French accent", when they speak English. Those with some other accents do not customarily receive such a compliment. After all, one of the goals of learning another language is to sound as close to native as possible, not the least in order to be more easily understood. You really have to like a particular accent a lot in order to find it beautiful when it appears in another language.

While learning Spanish by auditing classes taught by various colleagues, vocabulary, grammar and reading come easily to me because of my prior mastery of French, but I have a harder time with pronunciation, especially how to roll the [r] in Spanish, or which syllable gets stressed. One colleague patiently corrected me, but another told me not to worry.

"You don't need to change it. Your accent is beautiful. It is French," she insisted. "We like it."

It is well-known to linguists that our second or third language (L2 or L3) can have a stronger influence on subsequent languages we learn than our first, especially when they are much more similar, such as in the case of Spanish and French. Nevertheless, her comment made it obvious that there is a hierarchy in accents, some more beautiful than others.

The prestige of French accent may be connected to that of the French language, which we can trace all the way back to the Century of Louis XIV when French was spoken in all the royal courts in Europe and Dominique Bouhourr S. J. (1628-1702), one of the earliest and most effective advocate of French, declared it the most beautiful language in the world in the Entretiens d'Ariste et d'Eugène (1671). Few people remember Father Bouhours, but thanks to him the ineffable charm of "je ne sais quoi" can be used as aesthetic criteria beyond rational analysis and has been associated, sometimes half-jokingly, with all things French in the US. Generations of Chinese learned that French is the most beautiful language in the world from their middle school textbook, which included a short story by Alphonse Daudet, "La dernière classe" (The Last Lesson), translated into Chinese during the early twentieth century. The Chinese reception of the story happened to be connected to a long history of Japanese invasions of China. Many of us may not know much about the situation in Alsace, but identified with a people who lost their land to invaders, and felt a special affinity with their language.

Accents can convey layers of meanings beyond sound. I grew up in a small city in Sichuan and spoke the regional dialect for many years until I went to college in Beijing at 17. After several decades of speaking only the official Mandarin, French and English, I almost lost the ability to speak the dialect fluently, until I reconnected with my high school friends and made an effort to bring it back. It was highly rewarding: the fact that I can speak our dialect "in its original flavor" has been well appreciated by my hometown friends, which reminds me of a Quebecois colleague. He once gave me a ride from Montreal to a small Quebec town and back for an invited talk. We chatted for many hours and I only noticed a slight Quebecois accent from him. But when we met again at a conference and went out for dinner with several other Quebecois, his accent was so pronounced that I did not understand everything he was saying.

People from relatively marginalized groups know that their accent may not be generally perceived as beautiful, but keeping it constitutes a badge of authenticity and loyalty; on the other hand, finding an accent beautiful can reveal appreciation, admiration and even adulation for the culture in which the said language/dialect is spoken. It is not unrelated to our sometimes unchecked preconception about cultural appeal, prestige and power. How beautiful is your accent? How do we measure that? The answers are surely complicated and not always comfortable.

Illustration by Bendu

Jin Lu (魯進)

Born in Sichuan, China, I have studied French literature in Beijing, Boston, and Paris. I am currently a professor of French at Purdue University Calumet, USA. Joséphine Baker has two loves; I have three, or perhaps more? If you do not want to tear yourself apart, you need at least three things, and that gives you balance. I enjoy dreaming, reading and writing, among others.

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