Monday, June 9, 2014

Mongrel Mouthful

     I was watching The Chew recently and heard chef Curtis Stone say that when he was living in London, his Australian accent wasn't cool and was even considered uncouth by many; but when he made a trip to Cancun, he drew a lot of enthusiastic attention from the spring-break coeds for the exotic way that he spoke.

     I remember when I first moved to the Midwest, I felt almost swamped by the way people spoke. Everyone talked with a broad Midwestern twang which was often married to a blunt Chicago accent that impressed me like a burr under the saddle. Twenty years later I am so used to it that I don’t often hear any difference; and then it occurs to me, perhaps there no longer is a difference. Chameleon-like I am unconsciously prone to imitating other people’s tone and vocal rhythms.

     I’m not alone. I know a southern woman who picked up the twang and kept her drawl at the same time, and a British man who moved home to Newcastle and was ribbed for his American accent, all the while sounding purely British to me. The motherland for me is the Pacific Northwest and at one time I would have said that there was no accent in the west, but my daughter says she can spot a Californian as soon as he begins to speak.

     My husband is from Southern California but he left it before the onslaught of Valleyspeak in the 80’s when the erratic use of simile as a conversational filler and the popularity of the interrogative statement spread from Los Angeles to the entire nation. The trend to talk like an airhead lost momentum in the 90’s, but elements of the style are still with us 30 years later. I occasionally use some of those elements myself. Whatever.

     Just as language is fluid and new words are continually coming into use in order to meet the needs of our advancing society, fashion is fluid as well and will also change as culture fluctuates. The fashions of dress, behavior and speech are never static. In the closing scene of Shakespeare’s Henry the Fifth, Katherine tells Henry that it is not the fashion for the maids in France to kiss before they are married. Times have, indeed, changed.

     The latest fashion in speech is Vocal Fry. From the chatter generated online concerning this trend, it appears to be a burr under the saddle of many. I readily admit that I would find the habit grating if I were often exposed to it; at the same time, I wonder what Shakespeare would say of our way of speaking English if he were to come back from the grave and write a blog post about it. He might wish to vilify us for mutilating his beloved language, but on the other hand, we might wish to slap him for sounding so archaic and pompous. Don't mistake me, I would love to walk around speaking like the Bard, but I don’t think it would endear me to my family or friends.

     Whether we are aware of it or not, most of us are shaped by and speak the language of our culture, and that culture is an amalgamation of influences from our past—fads included. In The Ode Less Travelled: Unlocking the Poet Within, actor and writer Stephen Fry describes British English this way:

     “The English language is like London: proudly barbaric yet deeply civilised, too, common yet royal, vulgar yet processional, sacred yet profane. Each sentence we produce, whether we know it or not, is a mongrel mouthful of Chaucerian, Shakespearean, Miltonic, Johnsonian, Dickensian and American. Military, naval, legal, corporate, criminal, jazz, rap and ghetto discourses are mingled at every turn. The French language, like Paris, has attempted, through its Academy, to retain its purity, to fight the advancing tides of Franglais and international prefabrication. English, by comparison, is a shameless whore.

     So I am thinking vocal fry will be around for a while yet, until it becomes so last year that its characteristic growl rumbles off into the distance like thunder from a passing storm. In the aftermath, however, some of its components will most likely be absorbed into the vernacular, and may even leave a regional dialect as distinctive as those in Chicago, Boston, Brooklyn or the American South.

     For, despite the fashion for the maids of France in the fifteenth century, Henry got his kiss as well as the girl, and their union changed the course of history.

1 comment:

  1. I am going to re-read this many times. Accents and word origins fascinate me , probably because as an Army brat I lived and went to school in many states . ( I can't recall how many schools I attended ) Some of my family picked up and absorbed the slang and accents within the month of our arrival in a new state. It took awhile for me to quit using "yes Sir" and "yes Ma'am " in my new high-school here in Washington, but using the terms of respect anyone in the south or south east wouldn't think NOT to use resulted in looks of surprise or ridicule from fellow students .