A verbal chameleon

I was brought to another forceful realisation yesterday about how much my accent is capable of changing. I met a Singaporean who was back from the US, with an almost flawless American accent, and suddenly I felt like a hopelessly shabby speaker in comparison. I used to "Oh, really?" and "Awesome!" and "Cool!" with the best of them. Now I'm like, "Wah lau eh..."

But the environmental adaptation swings both ways. When I hang out with people who speak a slightly different brand of Singlish from what I grew up with, their linguistic idiosyncrasies start creeping into my conversations. Before this year, I'm pretty sure I never used sial, not even when I had a student six years ago who liberally punctuated his casual exclamation with that word (ampulets, remember him?). Thanks to Stellou (woman, call me already or at least email me your local cell number once you have it), I now flick off the cheh with panache and punch through with repeated, "And then?"s as well. (Stellou, nobody gets that reference except you and me. Bloody hell, now I'm tainted by your proclivity for parenthetical comments again.) I firmly blame Terz for the fact that I use "right" so often to express assent. And I say "no worries" all the time, even though it's apparently a distinctly Aussie turn of phrase and I haven't been Down Under since 1989.

Even in SMS I find that I gradually adopt the syntax, register and habits of the people I correspond with. If people use more Singlish, I respond in kind. Casey rarely punctuates his messages to me, so I'm a little lax with the punctuation when I SMS him --- even though the grammar cop in me gets really annoyed when that happens. Another friend tends towards punctuating his sentences with "ha ha" and I find myself reciprocating, using the phrase in lieu of the upper case U, umlaut (Ü) that's otherwise my default smiley symbol in SMS. Even the fact that I spell everything in full and construct grammatically sound sentences in SMS can be attributed to G-man, who inducted me into SMSing when I got my first cellphone. G-man and I can compose entire novellas through SMS, if we have to.

So much for the written/touch-typed word. Where does my accent lie? When I was in the US, people thought I sounded British. In the UK, they thought I was American. I've never had any trouble passing as local in Singapore, as opposed to the friend who encountered a cab driver who insisted, "You're not local!" because he had a not-very-Singlish (while still Singaporean) accent.

And then there's the voice in my head --- you know, the voice you think in. That one's Singlish-free, prone to Americanisms like "like", frightfully grammatical, except when it doesn't complete its sentences, but also completely accent-free. It doesn't drawl, it doesn't slouch, it articulates each word one by one. I may not say it like I think it, depending on the environment in which I'm saying it, but the original thought lingers, in the hum of its pure neutrality.

Weird, huh?


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At 7/07/2005 12:15 pm , Blogger cour marly said...

Get outta my head!

At 7/07/2005 5:32 pm , Blogger NARDAC said...

It takes me just a couple of days in singapore to be able to mimic the accent, but, and I'm not even sure if you know this, I battle to keep my own accent when I visit your island.

What's weird now for me is that I can have an american accent in North America, a British accent for non-native speakers, a french accented english for my husband, I speak franglais at home, Parisian accented french with my Paris friends, and Singapore accent with my parents. And all this, done with the flick of a switch. Even the blog has picked up some brit inflections due to brit/irish pollution.

And I'm picking up italian and german next year! I'll end being an unemployed ventriloquist.

At 7/07/2005 9:52 pm , Blogger the commentator said...

Adopting someone's linguistic style (as best you can), I feel, is a natural mechanism to reduce social distance.

Although I once witnessed a totally odd situation where 2 acquaintances of mine were apparently trying too hard:

The guy was a true blue ah beng, with English of a 5 year old (I'm not being mean. Really.) but fluent in Mandarin/ Hokkien. The girl was American-born, complete with a Southern twang, and the Mandarin of a 2 year old.

So there they were, trying to have a decent conversation. With the guy attempting to speak in English, and the girl trying her best to reply in Mandarin.

Now that was weird, I tell ya.

At 7/09/2005 5:16 am , Blogger Tym said...

KoP --- Maybe they've just spent too much time with Powerpoint? I'm honestly not sure if we're naturally programmed to think that way or if it's a side-effect of modern life. Have you seen the Gettysburg address done in Powerpoint?

At 7/11/2005 4:55 am , Blogger kungfuzi said...

Hello YM! I've been browsing this blog for some time, waiting for an opportune moment to say hi. (I went to Dartmouth; we collaborated on R(A) at Raffles...so now you know!)

I hate Powerpoint, but realise that the educrats may have some zany policy in place that actually requires you to "power up" your lectures. Can I check with you if this is the case? Please say no...

At 7/11/2005 10:21 pm , Blogger Tym said...

kungfuzi --- No need to re-introduce yourself. Your nick speaks for itself :)

There is no educational policy requiring teachers to use Microsoft. We've sold our souls to many things, but the Bill Gates empire isn't one of them, as far as I know. Besides, how to teach literature using Powerpoint?!

Hope you're doing well. Start a blog already!!

At 7/12/2005 1:07 am , Blogger kungfuzi said...

Actually, I've been blogging since 2002 at http://dartobserver.blogspot.com, which turns 3 years old in a few days. It used to be a group blog, but the groupies have mostly left.

Drop me an email one of these days, when you're free - cwkung at alum dot dartmouth dot org.


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