Saturday, July 23, 2011

Inspector Clouseau Accent

The senior police officer accused of being "more like Clouseau than Columbo" over the phone hacking scandal accused MPs today of acting like a "lynch mob" - and said he was discriminated against because of his accent. (London Evening Standard 13 July)

Attitude and assumptions can strongly influence the way we communicate with people. This is particularly evident when you hear a specific English accent or an accent from someone who is speaking English as s second language.. What are your stereotypical reactions when you hear an accent from South Africa, New Zealand, London, Liverpool or when someone from Japan, France or Germany is speaking English.? Many of these accents come with images or characters from film, television or books that lampoon a specific accent. Do you remember Pepe le Pew the French skunk and of course Steve Martin’s bumbling Inspector Clouseau.

The London Evening standard reported on the 13th July that The French senior police officer has been ridiculed not just for his accent but for his “Inspector Clouseau” accent.  According to the police officer, this discrimination has influenced the case against him

We are all guilty of mimicking a particular accent. This immediately makes the assumption that our own accent is superior in some way. Different styles of pronunciation or accents acquire a certain status or prestige within our own language, for example in Sydney we talk of a “North Shore” accent or a Western suburbs accent, even an Italo-Australian accent. These terms are very culturally laden with assumptions of higher income/well educated people, lesser educated or coming from a ghetto type background. When you hear that accent those assumptions come into play and affect your attitude towards the speaker.

For an accent to be superior to another there has to be a ‘norm’ that we use as the benchmark. For many years English Received Pronunciation (RP) was considered the norm. Nowadays RP is less likely to be considered the norm and accents from Australia, New Zealand and South African are now found, for example,  on local television by newsreaders. There is now a form of ‘international’ English which has become the norm. Often when listening to a global news story, it can be hard to tell if the speaker is from Australia, England, America or India. When I lived in France I aimed for this “international” accent, more for reasons of clarity and being understood rather than shedding my Australian accent.

English is the global language of business, diplomacy and finance so we hear English spoken with many different accents. If that is the case, in 2011 we should really be over this attitude of lampooning someone because of their accent when they speak English. If we have elevated English to this status we must expect the different varieties of spoken English and make the effort to understand Once I was out with a Canadian girlfriend who ordered a vanilla icecream and the British backpacker working behind the counter could not understand what my friend was saying. I rather pointedly said “She wants a vanilla icecream!” My friend and I looked at each other in disbelief as to why the girl did not understand her. Not only do we need to accept different varities of spoken English but we must make an effort to understand them.

Deborah Corbett from Pronunciation Matters, a consultancy teaching pronunciation to professionals who work in English as their second language says that accents are good and they are part of who you are. “You do need to seek help, however if your speech  is not clear and you are not being understood in the workplace. I often get clients who have a slight accent and complain that no-one understands them at work although their English is perfectly clear”

 I am certain that the French police officer’s case would have been influenced by his accent. I also find this totally unacceptable. If we elevate English to be the global speaking standard then we need to get over our prejudices.