WTF Wednesday: Faking an Accent

Posted on
Jun 22, 2011
Posted in: WTF

It’s time for WTF Wednesday, a semi-regular feature where I ramble on about downright crazy things I’ve encountered while traveling.

I am going to make a statement which will date me far beyond my 30 years, and one for which I will ask my younger readers (should they not presently be napping or enjoying a juice box) to forgive me.

I do not understand young people.

While I remember little from my idyllic early-20s (owed, I’m am sure, to the fact that the sheer wholesomeness of my recreational activities rendered them boring and unmemorable, and not, because, say, THC destroys the hippocampus), I can’t recall ever faking the accent of another land. Except for a brief stint in 2003 when I accidentally caught a Newlyweds marathon on television and started speaking with a faint southern accent, which wasn’t so much intentional as a symptom of having overdosed on Jessica Simpson, I’ve always stuck with my rather-generic-sounding Seattle accent, and it’s served me well.

But apparently there’s an entire generation of young Americans who, discontent with their normal parlance, have started mimicking that of other lands, and badly. Rand and I became aware of the phenomenon this past week while visiting the Bay Area. We found ourselves in the middle of a parched fairground on a scorching hot day, enjoying the unintentional hilarity of the Marin Arts Festival, and in dire need of refreshment.

Crepes, sausages, AND gyros? It was so international, I felt like I was at EPCOT.

We worked our way through stilt-walkers and couples in matching Hawaiian shirts to a collection of food stands on the outskirts of the fair. Rand ordered a drink from a young 20-something who was at that particular moment pretending to be from the working-class part of Boston. The sheer emphasis that he placed on each and every syllable soon made it clear that the closest he’d ever come to Southie was watching The Town twice in a row while drunk on Samuel Adams.

We proceeded to stare, fascinated, as the kid switched to a pseudo-Australian accent for the next customer. I was willing to accept it as an isolated incident: perhaps he was an out-of-work actor. Or an idiot. Or both. But it soon became obvious that he wasn’t alone. Everyone behind the counter was agonizing over their vowels, struggling to sound slightly more interesting. When Rand’s order was up, the blonde girl who handed him his drink halfheartedly attempted a European accent (let’s call it Germ-ish) before giving up and saying, “Uh, here’s some napkins” with the cadence of someone born and raised in the Bay Area.

We were stupefied.

Was this another young-person trend that I didn’t understand? Like the appeal of Taylor Lautner and the notion that vampires don’t instantly die in sunlight – was it something that you had to be under the age of 22 to appreciate? Were kids all over the country running around pretending they were from “just outside of London” even though their accents were more reminiscent of a tobacco-chewing Glaswegian?

Rand and I convinced ourselves that this was not the case. We were sure that when we returned to San Francisco, we’d encounter not a single person trying to artificially pepper conversations with words like “lovey” and “bollocks.”

And we were wrong.

As I was wandering down Mission, a young man collecting signatures tried to stop me. I explained to him that I wasn’t able to vote in California and kept walking. It was a half a block before I realized that his accent was a muddled mix of California, Australian, and Kiwi.

I immediately dismissed it. He had probably grown up in Australia, I thought. And moved here a few short years ago. Obviously. I was unwilling to believe that it was an epidemic.

Later, I walked by the young man again, and failing to realize he had spoken to me earlier, he tried to stop me once more. This time, when he spoke, his Australian accent was gone. He now had a southern drawl.

And I can only hope it was from watching too many episodes of Newlyweds.

Leave a Comment

  • I have run into this recently in Dallas. It IS an epidemic! lol

  • Ask Christine about my drunken Scots-Australian accent when I drink. It’s really classy.

    • I’m sure it’s partly how you wooed her.

      • Actually, it was when I told her to lower her standards if she wanted to hang with me. Not kidding.

  • It always irked me how when my friends would study abroad, they’d inevitably return to the States with a syrup-thick accent. YOU LIVED IN AUSTRALIA FOR FOUR MONTHS; DON’T TELL ME YOU FORGOT HOW TO TALK NORMAL. To that, I say BOLLOCKS.

    I lived abroad in Scotland, Holland and Denmark (and then New York, which can be considered its own country, too, if we’re basing on accents), and I most definitely did not return speaking a hybrid of those countries!

  • Archibald

    Just for the record, THC has no negative long-term effects on the hippocampus. But sure, your short-term memory was probably shot for a while.

  • As a young twenty-something, I must admit that I do this quite often. Though I have a degree in linguistics so I’m allowed. 🙂

    Learning to imitate an accent, and becoming phonologically flexible makes learning foreign languages easier, and is just a great mental exercise. If you spend any good amount of time listening to other accents, trying to imitate them will excite rule making parts of your brain and will work out your analyzing abilities.

    They may not be good at it, but it’s fun to do. You should try it, mate!

    Also, beware of people who naturally have multiple registers. My native register is a very heavy New York dialect, but I am also capable of speaking in “general” American (which has roots in Iowa). The accent and dialect I choose to speak in is dependent upon whom I’m speaking with.

    • Everywhereist

      I can’t tell you how delighted I am by your reply. I am perfectly willing to allow linguistic majors a free pass, because they have to master glottal stops and all that other nonsense that makes my head spin. 🙂

      Also, I’ve come across people with multiple registers but never known what to call it. My mother actually speaks Italian with a subtle Roman accent, but when it Rome (ha) it becomes much stronger. But I’ve always considered this distinct from say, spending a summer studying in London and returning to the states sounding like Dick Van Dyke’s character from Mary Poppins.

  • That’s so Madonna circa 2003. Move on, hipsters. Although I admit my Maine accent gets thicker when I drink and if I spend too long in a place I tend to unconsciously take on the local accent–it was a terrible day when I realized I was blending Baltimore and Bar Harbor. Oof.

    Also, I really enjoy juice boxes and naptime and as of last November I officially moved out of my mid-twenties.

  • Cat

    I do not consciously copy accents, but when I’m talking with someone with an accent I have to be careful not to imitate them unconsciously. If I’m around an accent for a couple months I do pick it up for a while. Now after 15 years in the Deep South, I have a distinct perma-drawl. Which is hard because I have a West Coast ingrained stereotype that Southerners are stupid. (For the record, I am not in my 20s.)
    You could try to play a guessing game of which TV shows the young-uns have been watching.

    • Ruth

      I do the same thing! When I was in London I had a hard time not unconsciously mimicking people’s accents when I was talking to them. My bro-in-law gave me great advice: try to “do” an American accent, and it will keep you from sounding like an idiot saying “‘ello” back when someone says it to you.

  • Colleen

    Hey – totally random comment here on your article, but I couldn’t find a “contact me” email thingamging. So, here it is, in all forms of randomness.

    I stumbled across this killer tweet this morning,
    (dooce‎: I open twitter, see the word Kardashian, then I look out the window in Bangladesh. I cannot make sense of the obscenely crude disparity. 17 hours ago)

    which lead me to this woman’s blog.

    Turns out she is crazy famous, and a writer just like you. She actually has a very similar voice. The blog turned into a huge success, and now she writes from home, in her pjs, with her dogs, kid, and hubby. Wanted to send you this ray of hope; writers, like you, do make it big! (Maybe you two connect?)

    Your loving reader & fan!

  • When I lived in Boston, one of our favorite things to do was talk with wicked heavy Mass accents. Saying town names really loudly and with that accent continues to be a delightful exercise (Taunton, Marshfield, Pepperell, Leominster, Billerica, Worcester…). We had to stop when we moved to Seattle because we didn’t want people to think we really talked like that. But then I met a guy from New Hampshire and we talk like that when nobody else is around.

    At first I just thought maybe the food-tent workers were bored and had invented this game to pass the time. That the practice is spreading is quite befuddling (and by using “befuddling” I am admitting that I am very, very old).

  • Scotty

    Whenever I spend too much time visiting New Orleans I catch myself using the accent. It’s inescapable when you’re there but it quickly goes away once you leave

  • ‘The Tent-ative Refugee’
    Graphic Commentaries on the Middle East

  • MSUDawg

    Being from the deep south in MS, and having a MN born/raised mother, accents have always been something I’ve noticed and appreciated. That being said, I have never heard any of my friends (all 20-something) attempt to do something as ridiculous as this, then again, attempting any accent with a southern-drawl root would prove to be a very strenuous task if accuracy is desired. And, as our friend from the West coast pointed out, we aren’t exactly the deepest thinkers down here.

    As for the other 20-somethings out there running around trying their new accents on, chances are you already have an accent and should embrace it. Just visit the other side of the country for a week.

  • Letie

    Ok…I’ve learned to not read your blog while sipping a beverage, or when i have to pee (TMI..i know).

    But this post was wicked funny.
    I have a friend who is British and its always interesting to me that when she talks to someone long enough that they start to unwittingly mimic her. Its like some sort of a conversational drift.

    She barely notices though (partly because to her Americans have the accent and British people talk “normally”) , partly because she’s a lovable space head.

    But accents are something I’m keen to notice too. Partly because I tried so hard to get rid of mine as a pre-teen. Now you can only tell i am from ‘elsewhere’ when i am exhausted.

  • AlexeytheRuskiAmerican

    Growing up in Indiana, ethnically Russian. You have no idea how fun it is to act like a Russian who barely knows English. You strike up a conversation, asking them for help with something or another, trying to throw in a few Russian words here and there to completely confuse them, and surprisingly most people will keep trying to communicate even if they barely understand what you’re saying. Then when you’re done, speaking perfectly normal and seeing the look on their face is priceless.

    But in general, I’ve always been fascinated by accents, and how people perceive the way others speak as an accent different from their own. Great read 🙂

    • Everywhereist

      That is quite possibly the coolest thing I have ever heard. Please record one of your interactions. I would love to see it.

  • Oh NO!!!

    If there is one thing that really irritates me, its people who think they’re doing an Aussie accent and do it badly.

    Nine times out of 10 they don’t even know what an Aussie accent is and end up mimicking a british, south african or (god forbid) new zealand accent!! For the record…in Australia the word “six” is pronounced “six”, not “SEX”.

    Thank you so much though, for giving me the gift of knowing that someone in their 30’s found it ridiculous too. For once I don’t have to think “I must be getting old”.

  • Oh, dear. Wait till you get to Ireland and have to fight your way through a bus-load of Irish teens who are, like, so talking, like, with a, like, Fake Murkan accent. It’s, like, so awesome, like. Y’know?

    As a result, I find it somehow reassuring to know that Young Murkans are also affected by the dialect virus (= dialectirus). I notice you didn’t mention anyone trying to fake an Irish accent, which makes me pause for thought (are we NOT COOL ENOUGH???) … but it’s okay, because Fake Irish accents come in two varieties: (a) Pirate (“Arrrrrr! Aye, ’tis a grand day, begorrah, arrr!”) or (b) Demented Leprechaun (“Top o’ the morning to ya! Praise the saints for the wee bit o’ sunshine!”). It’s very distressing.

  • Stinalotta

    I have a weird mixture of accents. And I fall exactly into that early-20s age demographic. In my defense though, accent confusion only happens in english (mostly), which is not my first language. I am German, during the first years of my contact with the English language we were forced to use British English, then I went to Georgia for 10 months, picked up a slight southern accent, over the next years it became a mixture of German and Southern accent and now that I’ve also been to New Zealand for a few months, my accent is a MESS. Anything’s better than a full-on German accent though, so I’m good.

    In German, I WISH i could switch between high German and Kölsch but sadly, I do not possess the ability to talk that way.

    • Everywhereist

      I will never ever judge someone for the accents used when one is speaking a non-native language – it’s part of the learning process, after all, and rather charming. I tend to speak Italian like the Roman Valley Girl, and no one seems to have a problem with it. It’s when I start speaking English (my native language) with such an accent that problems would arise. 🙂

  • I love your sense of humor. But I must admit, I used to fake a British accent (this is actually part of my heritage…umm, way back…) when i was 23 and working the drive-thru window at Starbucks. My friends actually loved it, and after doing it enough, i was apparently having a really good day and completely fooled 2 separate customers. They both asked where i was from and if I was from England. Haha. I found that amusing. I have since stopped. 😀

  • Liz

    Three years later, I googled ‘unconsciously mimicking accents’, and this showed up on the first page. If these young people you described are mimicking accents purposefully (for attention), I can see why you might find that irritating. But you must recognize that it’s possible that they aren’t (all) doing it intentionally.

    I’ve always had a strong subconscious tendency to ‘adopt’ accents of people I spend time with (or hear on TV shows etc). I grew up in the Deep South, but when my godparents from Missouri came to visit, by evening after their arrival, I’d have fully adopted their speech patterns, and it would take weeks to taper off after they left. The tendency hasn’t diminished as I’ve gotten older. I think it’s an expression of a subconscious desire facilitate communication (especially for those of us who grew up in ‘non-standard’ accents). Of course there are some accents that are more ‘infectious’ for me than others. When I’m around Northern Brits, Aussies or Kiwis, for example, I have to be hyper-vigilant so they don’t get the idea I’m ‘taking the piss.’

    According to this research ( most people do it but some are just more adept at it than others. So do please try and cut us ‘natural mimics’ a little slack 😉

More from The Blog

On Instagram @theeverywhereist

  • Take note: if you ask your husband if you can move to NYC roughly four dozen times, he will start to cave a little.
  • Incredible reading by the love of my life to a packed room at NeueHouse Madison Square. So proud of you, @randderuiter, and the amazing emcee work by @michaeliconking.
  • Re-posting this photo that @wilreynolds took of us and his youngest near the beach outside of Lisbon. We're back home now, and I can't decide what I miss more: this little guy and his brother, or Portugal. Actually, scratch that. I know.
  • This place looks like a damn fairy tale.
  • Lunch with a view of the water, and some of the best seafood of my life.
  • The entire drive from Sintra to Lisbon looks like this. It's just miles of blue sky and rocky beaches.
  • No filter. This is just what Sintra looks like.
  • This street artist does amazing collages of animals from hunks of discarded plastic he collects (part of an effort to raise awareness about some of the most vulnerable victims of pollution). They're all over Lisbon, but we managed to get a close up view of this one.
  • Thousand watt smile on the little dude, and I am done.
  • Those eyes though.

All Over The Place

Buy my book and I promise I'll never ask you for anything again.