Why Does He Talk So Funny?
“MUMMY, why does he talk so funny?” Have you heard a child ask such a question after first meeting someone from overseas or from another part of your own country?
Have you been surprised to hear your own language spoken in the strangest of ways by people from other places? If so, it is because of the existence of fascinating accents.
What Is an Accent?
When used regarding speech, the word “accent” does not refer to the marking of various letters or syllables with accent signs as is done in some written languages. Rather it means speech of those living in other places who speak your language with different inflection and pronunciation from what you are accustomed to hearing. Yet these are people who have spoken the same mother tongue as yours from their birth.
Possibly English is the language for which this commonly occurs because of its being spoken in so many parts of the world. Thus, one can usually distinguish a Scotsman from a Canadian, a South African from an Irishman, an Australian from an American, by the accent with which he speaks his common language, English.
However, the situation is not limited to the English-speaking world, for those speaking other languages may experience the same thing. Many people who speak Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, French, German, or Japanese may also consider that those who live in other areas speak their respective language in the strangest ways. For example, the “th” sound used in Castilian Spanish sounds odd to Hispanics who use the “s” sound. Thus, Zaragoza, pronounced “Tharagotha” in many parts of Spain, turns into “Saragosa” for most Hispanics.
Even after many years of living in a different locality or country, adults rarely change their speech accent completely unless particularly setting out to do so. On the other hand, children up to early school years usually, without any conscious effort, adopt the accent being spoken around them by other children.
How Do You React?
Are you fascinated when you hear your language spoken by someone with a different accent? Do you find this appealing? Author Kurt Vonnegut described his feelings: “All these varieties of speech are beautiful, just as the varieties of butterflies are beautiful.” Or do you become irritated and wonder why the stranger cannot speak your language properly? Sometimes prejudice can play its part. Yet, with the constant increase of international travel, an open mind can be such an asset, since we can expect to encounter the situation more and more as time passes.
By far the majority are intrigued and find it a refreshing change to hear their mother tongue spoken with a different accent. Usually the listener is convinced that he himself has no accent—it is the other person who speaks “strangely.” Of course, this is not the case, and your speech will sound equally strange and, hopefully, intriguing and fascinating to the visitor.
This does not mean that there may not be occasional teasing, or bantering, between people of some countries with the same basic language. This in itself need not be undesirable if done in a good-natured way. Rather, it can improve relations and understanding because of the lighthearted repartee. An example might be the teasing question raised by Professor Henry Higgins in the motion picture My Fair Lady, based on George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion. Because of the variety of accents and dialects in England, he asked: “Why can’t the English learn to speak?” Then, referring to English, he quipped: “In America they haven’t spoken it for years!” Shaw also wrote with wry humor: “England and America are two countries separated by the same language.”
Accents Here to Stay?
The Bible tells us that different languages were introduced suddenly among men about 4,000 years ago when the Tower of Babel was being built on the Euphrates River. (Genesis 11:1-9) Each of the 3,000 or so languages spoken today throughout the earth is able to express the full range of human emotions and thoughts.
In harmony with God’s original purpose, in the future under his Kingdom rule there will apparently again be just one language throughout the earth, as was true before the confusion of tongues at Babel. Whether such an earth-wide, common language will be spoken with varying speech accents in different parts of the earth is a fascinating question that only the future will answer.
Meanwhile, if your little son or daughter should ask: “Mummy, why does he talk so funny?” try to answer with a smile and say: “He does not really talk funny—just different! And do you know something? You and I also sound funny to him!”