Accent issues

Last night I was chatting to a Black police officer, and somehow we got onto the topic of accents. He said that at work, he was very aware of his Asian accent and did his best to adopt a Queen’s English accent so as to not alienate himself from the people to whom he talked (mainly white people). According to him, speaking in a "foreign" accent could create a barrier between him and his interlocutor and make his work less efficient.
I knew exactly what he meant when he said that the way you talk greatly affects your working relationships. When I’m interpreting, I’m very careful to disguise my Southern French accent and speak in a neutral "Parisian" way. I think the job of an interpreter is to convey messages as faithfully and neutrally as possible and not to attract attention to oneself. Speaking with a strong accent is a sure way to distract people’s attention from what you are saying to how you’re saying it, as it puts the limelight on you and not on the information you’re trying to communicate. When I let a vowel slip, I invariably notice that the person I am talking to suddenly has a little smile; I know that they are probably wondering where I am from in the South instead of concentrating on what I am saying to them.

By | 2016-10-18T15:51:54+00:00 July 7th, 2004|Interpreting|13 Comments

About the Author:

I am Céline Graciet, a freelance English to French translator. Since 2003 I’ve been writing on all sorts of areas linked to translation and the life of a translator.


  1. Jemima July 8, 2004 at 10:13 am

    I’m interested by your capitalisation of Black and the way Black now includes Asian. The language of race is incredibly subtle and changes so often. Does that cause nightmares when translating?
    Also, do you think the smile when you slip into your Southern French accent may be to do with having a glimpse of the facade, rather than a focus on the accent itself? Perhaps if you always spoke with your ‘real’ accent, nobody would notice.

  2. céline July 8, 2004 at 11:24 am

    That’s very interesting. To me, a Black person was someone whose origins are in Africa, but in England, I’ve met a few people from Asian origins who call themselves Black. In fact, I met the chap I mentioned in my entry during a meeting of the Black Police Association, and this is how the Gloucestershire branch defines “black”:
    “We define the term black, not denoting skin colour, but as an accepted generic term used to describe ‘visible minority’ people of African, African-Carribbean and Asian origin; who share the common experience to oppose the effects of racism and victimisation”
    Last night when I wrote my entry, I translated “black” as “noir” on the French side of this blog, hesitated, changed it, then changed it back, and this morning I changed it again because to French-speaking readers, I think “Noir” would apply exclusively to a person of African origins, not to a person of Asian origins. So yes, it is tricky, especially as I’m desperate not to offend anyone!
    Regarding my Southern accent, you might be right, the smile might be because the person spotted a fake. However, speaking in a neutral accent helps me get into “work mode” and it’s faster and more efficient in an interpreting situation than my original accent, which is caracterised by a pronunciation of every single phoneme.

  3. Qov July 9, 2004 at 5:11 am

    That peculiar usage of Black is not used in North America and, having read the French side of your blog first I ended up hitting the back and forward keys a few times, thinking, “wait a moment … didn’t she say he was Asian?”
    I remember reading a UK journal article in the early eighties, arguing that everyone who wasn’t white was black, and proposing a solidarity through the use of the term. I remember thinking that it was a crazy “them foreigners are all alike anyway” idea and I’m astonished to discover that idea is now so established that a resident and fluent speaker hesitated to say “a police officer of Asian origin” lest it cause offence.

  4. céline July 9, 2004 at 8:35 am

    Let me clarify: the only reason why I feel comfortable using “black” to talk about a person of Asian origins is that all such people I’ve met in England defined themselves as “black”. I remember clearly a very odd conversation between an Asian friend and me in which she said that she was off meeting “other black people”. Bemused, I replied: “But you’re not black”. She clearly did identify as black. I wish I could remember her reasons why, but since people of Asian origins define themselves as black, I’m happy to follow suit; who am I to contest their identity?
    Second, I didn’t think saying “a police officer of asian origins” might be offensive. I’m just generally aware that being white, I might be naive about race issues that I don’t experience personally and might use the wrong term without meaning to.
    Last, I think I understand why people who aren’t white, whatever their origins, might want to unite to combat a common enemy: racism. It’s got nothing to do with ignoring cultural specificities and putting “all those foreigners” in the same basket, it’s more about fighting a same prejudice together. I think a similar approach has led to gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transexuals to join in a common group, although they often have very little in common. The little thing they have in common, however, is powerful enough for them to want to join forces, and that’s the fight against prejudice based on sexuality.

  5. Neij July 9, 2004 at 10:43 am

    This might be even more confusing since the UK and the USA tend to use the word “Asian” slightly differently in my experience. In the UK, a person described as “Asian” or “of Asian origin” is likely to have his/her roots in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh or Sri Lanka. In the USA, “Asian” tends to be used more to refer to people whose origins lie in Japan, Korea, Vietnam, etc.
    Purely in terms of skin colour, someone from India is clearly much closer to being “black” than someone from Japan, so it’s not surprising that Qov was temporarily confused while reading Céline’s article.
    Of course, this doesn’t help us with the question of whether/why people of Indian/Pakistani etc. origin are/consider themselves to be “black”.

  6. Zeus July 9, 2004 at 11:12 am

    It’s true..The language can have a lot of effects in the relations between people.
    Nice Blog!
    Kisses from Lisbon

  7. Jim July 9, 2004 at 11:51 am

    Is Parisian neutral? I find this interesting. If I remember correctly the standard line is that in France people modify grammar, lexis and so on according to situation (ie to be more posh or more street) but not regional accent. Supposedly it is perfectly acceptable to have a southern accent in any situation but you have to modify your register properly. Of course, I have never believed this since I was brought up in Britain, so for many years I tried desperately to acquire a standard accent in French (the results given that my teachers were largely English is demonstrably deplorable). It was a while before I felt comfortable just giving up the effort and settling for my execrable mix of Roussillonais and Sarf London. Do people use a switch to a Parisian accent as a way to switch register? To mark a more formal situation etc? Or is this an individual strategy of yours that only concerns the interpreting context?

  8. céline July 9, 2004 at 12:13 pm

    Jim: of course there is no such thing as ONE “Parisian” accent. It’s like talking of a “London” accent that might cover Eastenders and the Queen. I used “Parisian” because I think the more neutral form of French is probably to be found in Paris, if anywhere at all. I should have stuck with “standard”, much safer!
    However, I do think that there is a strong divide in people’s minds between regional accents (which brand you as a country pumpkin) on the one hand and “Parisian” accents (which brand you as a townie – you have to remember that Paris is the only truly big city in France) on the other.
    Basically, there is a big divide in France between Paris on the one hand and the “Province” (the rest of France) on the other. I distinctly remember getting into trouble with my father because a neighbour had told him that he thought I spoke “Parisian”, i.e., I thought I was better than everyone else and pretentious. You have to remember that I was brought up in a rural, working-class environment where conforming was the rule. So I think it is seen as a higher register, definitely more sophisticated. I personally use it to mark a more formal situation and to sound more “professional”. I would struggle to explain why, but possibly because of the “country pumpkin” stigma attached to regional accents; I feel like I’m more likely to be taken seriously if I avoid it.
    Does this make any sense?

  9. Andreas July 9, 2004 at 4:27 pm

    This is a very interesing post. and I can fully understand Céline’s arguments.It’s amazing how many emotions can be evoked by an accent. The best anyone can do is to use these prejudices to their advantage. (In this respect, the Internet is a great leveller).
    Personally, in certain situations, I try much harder to articulate my t’s and l’s (h’s are less of a problem),sometimes just to help French people to understand my English. Language ‘methods’ rarely feature London accents to my experience.
    Regarding terminology, around here (Paris or at least Paris Region) the word ‘black’ not ‘noir’ is used ot denote black people ( eg ‘il est black’ ). How did this come about? Is it recent?
    Re another comment, I have yet to suss out different Parisian accents. However I notice that some people really roll their r’s and so for example ‘Montmarte’ would sound like ‘Montmartré’ It sounds completely contrived – I wonder if it is.

  10. Hamida July 9, 2004 at 8:29 pm

    Hi there, I’m an exhibit for your discussion – technically I have Bangladeshi, Paksitani and English heritage when you look at my parent’s heritage. However, I would define myself as black – for many of the reasons Celine and other colleagues have already acknowledged – for instance, a political unity with other visible black and minority ethnic people sharing a common experience of direct and institutional discrimination. Although as one of the commentators stated, this was a stance hugley common during the eighties, it is still one I identify with. However, I guess that’s the point – I can only talk about my experience, and speak only for myself. My brother who shares exactly the same heritage as me but has a much darker skin colour and is therefore more visible than myself, has also experienced more direct discrimination than me – however, he would describe himself as ‘mixed heritage’ and would deny that racism is as prevalent as I think it is. Therefore, we will all have differnt views on this and as others have also said, language is fluid on this subject and will constantly change. What’s important is that we are all aware of the language we use and how powerful it is in either challenging discrimination or colluding with it and perpetuating it. I’m an equalities officer by profession and Im hugley encouraged that people in other fields are discussing these issues – sometimes I feel I’m the only one raising the issues and working towards change. What’s key in all of this is the principle of self-definition is upheld so that I have the freedom to describe who I am because I’m the only one in a position to do just that. In terms of Celine’s original conversation with her friend in the police service – Celine was doing exactly that – respecting someone who chose to define themselves in a particular way – which might well be different to other people in his ‘community’. Well that’s my view – sorry for gatecrashing your debate – I’m new at this ‘blog’ stuff – my first time! Enjoy, Hamida x

  11. Leah Hung July 11, 2004 at 6:09 pm

    I have always thought that I have a pretty fluid accent, that alters according to the situation and the company I am in (can be quite a powerful weapon). When working in London I would speak very ‘properly’ with my boss and superiors but then in the company of my friends I would lapse into a softer verision of the South East London accent (that reflects where I went to school). I also notice that, unconsitously, if I am in a group of people from a specfic region in the UK (e.g. South West, North, Scotland) then I will start to mimic them! I think I am quite a magpie for accents.
    I put this down to being orginally from Scotland and moving to London when I was ten. So ‘losing’ my Scottish brogue allowed me to socialise and become accepted in school quicker. But, by losing my orginal accent I feel that I have lost a direct link to Scotland and I get rather fed up about people assuming that I am English. But now I live in the US people assume I am Austalian. It is amazing to me that, in general, American’s can’t tell the difference between British and Australian….when it comes to Scottish and Welsh they just lump them in with the Irish!!!!

  12. Charlotte July 22, 2004 at 5:49 pm

    This is such a great blog! I just found it. I find it interesting that you referred to the stigma of being a “country pumpkin.” In the US, we say “country bumpkin.”

  13. céline July 22, 2004 at 7:42 pm

    Ahem. Turns out it’s “bumpkin” in UK English as well. Thanks for pointing it out Charlotte. Still learning, still learning…

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