I speak English, you speak English, the Queen speaks English: the gal on the news out of Chicago speaks English. I hear the Queen, she has an English accent. Specifically she has a royal accent: very close to a London accent, there being many different accents within “London” English (and the palace is its own neighborhood with its own accent). If the queen hears me, she’ll recognize that I have an American accent. New York? Beyond American neither she nor the English professor at Oxford may be too confident because my New York accent, modified by living all over, was also modified by my being conscious of accents and talented of tongue. People used to ask me all the time if I were English: it wasn’t because my wife was English, born in London, and it wasn’t just that I was an English Herr Doktor Professor teacher; I was conscious of my speach, was literary, excessively schooled perhaps, saw how words were spelled as I said them: very misleading for accents.
I don’t know what I sound like now, my hearing has gone the way of all flesh (and I’m surrounded by cultural ignoramuses).
But never mind that: I’m here to tell a funny story about accents. Then I’ll add more comments, scholarly and perhaps otherwise.
1963 or so: Hilary and I have started skiing. Her mother has a cottage in the Catskills, can see the Hunter Mountain ski slopes from Hilary’s back yard. Me out of the army and in graduate school, Hilary and I use the Catskills cottage a lot, thank you very much. So: we sleep near Elka Park, ski at Hunter (and elsewhere), shop in Tannersville … One night we’re out for pizza, in Tannersville probably, maybe in Hunter … Big table across the main dining room fills up with people in sweaters and parka and so forth. Hilary and I can hear that they’re conversing in one or another slavic language. It sounds wonderful. “What’s that? Polish?” I guess. “Russian?”
“Um, I don’t think it’s Russian: Polish?” Hilary and I both center on Polish, but of course we don’t know. Hilary is fluent in German as well as English, speaks French about as well as I do. I’d learn a little German, but not yet. And I knew a little Russian, very little.
Let’s say that these people were speaking Polish. Hilary and I just loved listening to them! But then they all switched to English: and they all had the most atrocious Bronx accents! I couldn’t stand to hear their English!
But clearly, they were very well at home in it, they spoke their Bronx English with total comfort. Hilary and I could hear their home location, and could narrow down their class, their occupational range.
Of course we didn’t record our impressions, didn’t confirm or refute any guesses: we were just satisfied with our impressions, took them home, forgot about them, we could have been wrong, so what?
Now: let’s say that it was “Polish” they had been speaking. I know for me, and I’m sure for Hilary too, their Polish was just fine. Hilary nor I are Polish aristocrats, we’re not from Warsaw, we don’t know one Warsaw neighborhood from another: did they sound like the count? or the cleaning woman? Don’t know: don’t care. We couldn’t even be sure it was Polish!
We know that “folk” is spelled with an L; but no one says foLk. But we may say pumpkin, the way it’s spelled, not knowing that it’s been /punkin/for centuries in English speech from region after region. No, no: consciousness of spelling introduces new illiteracies.
Anyway, I once wasted effort talking like things looked; not how things sounded. I’m sure glad I don’t do that any more.