I have a keen and utterly useless ability when it comes to accents. I have an ability to detect even the slightest presence of the slightest accent. That is it. I cannot tell you where the accent is from – that would be a great parlor trick – but, I can tell you if someone has one, even if they think no one can hear it. I can hear it.
Consequently, I end up saying things in conversations frequently like, “So, where is it you are from?” or “So, how long have you been in the States?” Sometimes people are surprised at the question and other times they know full well their speech is muddled.
I became aware of accents at the age of twelve. Our family was relocating from the Upper Peninsula of Michigan back down to the Lower Peninsula. On the drive south, every time we stopped in a convenience store or gas station, people kept asking us which part of Canada we were from. I had no idea why. My mother never told me we had an accent.
Then I went to school. The kids there made fun of me every time I said the word “out.” I thought I sounded like the people on television. When they talked about the General American Accent, I thought I had that. I had no idea I sounded like a half-Canadian-Mid-Western hick.
Teenage pressures insist anomalies be eliminated, however, and I started listening to other people’s speech. I started hearing the vowels and the dropped consonants. I started hearing what made you different from me. It became an unconscious habit, like listening for pitch once you have learned to tune an instrument. My musician’s ear came in handy. I started tuning my own instrument, naturally imitating those around me in a perhaps not so unconscious effort to blend.
I moved to the west coast in 1997. By this time I believed I had eliminated the tell-tale signs of my upbringing. I thought I had it all down. I thought I could get away with being the cultured city girl. Then it started. People started asking me the question.
I was sitting at a bar in Portland, Oregon. I was chatting with a professional fighter from South Africa. We were both just visiting Portland for a fight show. I had, of course, asked him how long he had been living in the States. He told me, then looked at me and said, “And you?”
“Damn,” I thought. It was the first time I realized people with accents have some sort of radar for other people with accents. I told him I was from the States and he gave me a dubious look. “I grew up near the Canadian border,” I offered and this seemed to allay his doubts.
Even now, after over a decade in Los Angeles it happens. Recently a client of mine asked me where I grew up. I told him Michigan. He squinted at me and asked me where my parents were from. I told him Michigan. The squint of disbelief continued. “But, what is that accent?” he asked, giving up on politeness.
For that question, I have no answer. It is apparent, however, people with an ear for the muddle can hear mine, loud and clear. It is obvious something is off, but it cannot quite be placed. In that, my musician’s ear has failed me. My skill at hearing accents evolved into an inadvertent habit of absorbing pieces of yours. I pick up random words from people and say them with their lilt. If you talk to me too much I will start talking like you. It is by accident. It is just how my ear works.
And then, when I get upset or I get excited everything turns to “out” and “about” once again and people pause and tilt their heads at me.
The nasal drawl of Oregon. The thick round vowels of the Upper Penninsula. The missing g’s at the end of every Mid-Westerner’s verbs. The lazy flat vowels of the Valley. They are all in there somewhere, in my General American Muddle.