The only thing I despise more than observing myself in a department store fitting room mirror is listening to my own voice on an answering machine. Although born in New York City, I grew up on Long Island. Oddly, I have a heavier regional accent than both my mother and father who lived in the Bronx and Brooklyn, respectively, until they were adults. I never gave my accent any thought until I heard my voice on a tape recorder as a teenager. I figured the tape must have been warped; there was no way I sounded like that!
During college I enrolled in a basic communications course. One assignment required that I write a speech regarding any subject I chose. The professor teaching the course was boring, unfriendly, and most importantly, not a native New Yorker. Shortly after beginning my oral presentation she rudely interrupted. She barked, “The word is TIME, not TYME!” In front of the class she criticized not the content or sentence structure, but rather, my “unacceptable” pronunciation. She said everything under the sun except LOSE THE ACCENT. I was a 22-year-old New Yorker and she was trying to teach me to speak as if I weren’t. Eventually she softened up and thankfully I passed the course.
Traveling out of state usually presents a dilemma. While visiting certain cities in Florida I am generally okay since there are so many native New Yorkers that sound just like me. However, California, on the other coast, has proven to be a problem. During a vacation to the Los Angeles area my cousins treated listening to me speak as a hobby. I was asked to say certain words and then they laughed hysterically when I proceeded to do so. At first it was tolerably amusing, but then became severely annoying in the absence of the initial novelty wearing off.
Years ago I traveled to Delaware with some friends. While having dinner at a restaurant one of them jokingly told the waitress I was Fran Drescher’s sister (“The Nanny”) after I ordered my meal. And that is not the first occasion on which the comparison has been made. I smiled and went along with the somewhat plausible notion although it’s quite an exaggeration. I hope.
I recall speaking with a few acquaintances at a pizzeria when a fellow came over to me and said with total enthusiasm, “What part of Brooklyn are YOU from? I’M from Canarsie!” I hated to burst his bubble by informing him that I wasn’t from any part at all; however, I told him. He believed I was lying; truthfully, I wasn’t.
I’ve met people from all over the country during my treks and have heard many different dialects of the English language spoken. I do not give the subject much thought, if any. We each sound the way we do because of who we are combined with where we are from. Regional accents aren’t “good” or “bad.” They are what they are, part and parcel of the countless unimportant differences amongst people. Unfortunately, this is another one of the various ways to ridiculously divide and already ridiculously divided population. Remember, it is what we say rather than the way we say it that matters. Actions speak louder than words and words speak louder than accents. Even mine.