The Fundamentals: Accents & Mumbling

Cherry Blossoms of Spring

Cherry Blossoms of Spring

It was nice outside last Saturday so we headed outside to the park where we were joined by several other foreigners who were enjoying the weather beside a group of elderly and somewhat intoxicated Korean men playing Yoot… a typical spring Saturday in Seoul.   There were foreigners from the United States, South Africa, New Zealand, Canada, England, Mongolia, and Australia and we were all conversing in our native tongue: English.  Thinking back, what to an unknowing passerby (especially to a non English-speaking gentleman or lady) would seem like a gathering of identical English speakers, had turned into quite an eclectic group of expats.  Each of us, besides sharing the same language, were from completely different parts of the globe, brought up immersed in entirely distinct cultures… and yet we were conversing as neighbors that have known only one town would.

We talked about all things without pause.  There was no need to clarify meaning because we all understood each other perfectly well!  South Africa, New Zealand, England, United States, every hemisphere connected in a peaceful web of total connection in language.  Of course this makes one wonder about the wars have been caused simply by discrepancies in language and whether or not a single world language would really be a loss to humanity.  However, what has been on my mind for the last couple days was an exchange between myself and an Englishman.  As Spanish from Spain is to a Chilean, so too is English from England to an American: seasoned and distinguished-sounding, ancient and beautiful.  Few times before –notably during the USA Cup–have I had the pleasure of speaking with someone from England or the United Kingdom and, as was the case then, I found myself speaking with him about my favorite sport, football.

Can you hear my accent?  No, unfortunately.  Unfortunately because from the moment that Englishman said football I knew that he was not talking about punts and 2-point conversions; no, he was speaking about throw-ins and goal kicks…and I knew it immediately, without question or pause.  Why?  Simple, his accent gave it away.

Accents determine more than we think.  In this gathering of English speakers from all over the world, accents were all that caused any discrepancy and yet everything that made us unique.  In fact, one of the more daunting tasks of the South Korean English-studying student is an encounter with a native speaker from England, New Zealand, Australia, or South Africa after having studied English from someone with a North American accent.  Sometimes the differences can be too much even for the more experienced English speakers (aka. the Korean English teachers).  In our school in Korea, for example, where North American English speakers have been teaching for nearly three consecutive years, has been introduced last March a teacher from New Zealand…and the befuddled faces continue to this day at some of the things he says.  To give a more concrete idea of the ridiculous sensitivity to accents that the South Korean teachers have acquired over the last few years, last week’s lesson–titled “When is it due?”–was constantly misunderstood.  Why?  It seems to me, after hearing it happen several times, that the North American accent puts more emphasis on the “D” of due, that is…it is more plosive and …well, accented, whereas the New Zealand accent has the “D” sounding more like a “J” (jue instead of due).  You wouldn’t believe the amount of confused faces his was met with the first time our new teacher said it.

Can an accent differ so greatly from the original language that it becomes a language of its own?  Perhaps on a smaller scale, when does an accent become so differed that it can safely be called a new dialect?  But whoa, hold on!  Does dialect have anything to do with accent and pronunciation or is it only associated with vocabulary and grammar?  To answer my own question–after a bit of internet surfing– the term dialect is used for language that differs in vocabulary, grammar, and pronunciation, while the term accent is applied to those languages that only contain differences in pronunciation.  Therefore, strong and jumbled mumbling could simply and only be classified as a strong accent.  That is to say that no matter how much you mumble you will never technically be speaking a new dialect let alone a new language…but you would be utterly unintelligible.

Yet if you are speaking something that is unintelligible to those around you then how are you not speaking a new language??  Could it be a new dialect?  According to other bloggers and Wiki it seems like that is out of the question because a new dialect would require a change in vocabulary and grammar both of which stay the same when someone is mumbling.  What then is mumbling?  Does mumbling in any language sound the same: jumbled and unrecognizable by all?  It reminds me of a picture that I used on a post about Eastern and Western Calligraphy some time ago.

Mumbled Writing

Mumbled Writing

At what point does stylish and fancy calligraphy become incomprehensible chicken scratch?

It seems that mumbling, once it has passed the threshold of intelligibility by those who speak the mumbled language natively,  is no longer a language at all but more like the white noise that you hear on your television set.  There is–to the receiver of the sound–no beginning, no end, no grammar, no vocabulary, and no pronunciation.  in other words, it is simply audible.  What is interesting however is that the sender of the sound actually has something in mind that they are trying to express but in a very unclear manner.  This means that in some way and at some level the mumbled words should be intelligible, or maybe not.  Maybe the only way to understand such mumbled language would be to enter into the mind and read the thoughts of the sender.

Which beings me back to the Englishman in the park and accents in language. Do accents permeate our deepest thoughts?  Given that mind-reading is possible some day, would our accents be audible to those reading our minds?  Would an Englishman sound any different to me than a Canadian…in my mind?  Would my mind impose my own accent upon the speech information of the sender or would the sender’s speech information have included within it the accent of the individual?  Accents are no more than the particular way that our mouth and facial muscles form when speaking audibly so I wonder now if there is any intrinsically correct or foundational way of speaking any language.  Actually, when you think about it, accents and language are intrinsically and fundamentally linked to one another!  If you remove the accent from some spoken language then you are left with no language at all!  Reading minds therefore will require some foundational accentual input in order to work.  We will either superimpose our own accent on the conveyed speech information of others or we will interpret speech information with embedded accentual coding.

Notably, this has become a bit more science-fictional than most other posts but the point still remains: Accents determine more than we think.  In spoken language accents can determine the meaning of a word (football = soccer) and are useful for determining the which region of the world the speaker was born and raised in.  More abstractly, language can not exist at all without accents because they are tied together from the very beginning.  It is like space time and the birth of the universe: before the universe there was neither space nor time, but after the birth of the universe both space and time existed one with the other, inseparable.

I do not claim to be a linguist.  I am not a linguist.  I am simply unloading questions and thoughts about the subject of language (which I continue to find very fascinating and easy to expound about on a weekly basis)  It is my sincere hope that my thoughts are not so convoluted and unfocused that you become confused and unmotivated to read on but rather that you find one scrap of an interesting thought within these pages and use it to further you own curiosity and desire for knowledge.

Links about accents:


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