A Funny Accent

by David Sugarman

Let me get this straight right from the start: I speak French with an English accent. Now, I’m not sure that this is inherently much worse than speaking French with a Parisian or Corsican or Belgian accent, or for that matter speaking English with a Cockney or Geordie or New York accent.

In the UK – and I would guess pretty much all English-speaking countries – it’s perfectly common to come across people speaking adequate, fluent, proficient, accomplished, even bilingual English in an accent that bears traces of their original mother tongue. But for the French, this is a bit of a novelty.

I quite often come across two reactions from people, both of which drive me spare. One is from people that I’ve barely had time to meet and greet, telling me that I have an English accent. In case I hadn’t noticed. They could just have usefully pointed out that I have two eyes. Oddly, it’s quite often hairdressers that feel it is part of their remit to tell me that I’m English. Perhaps it’s how they gauge how big a tip to expect.

The other thing is when I have got some way into my dealings with them, they take it upon themselves to tell me how good my French is. Next time they’re on a bus, they’ll probably nip up front and tell the driver he’s driving well. For heaven’s sake, it’s what he does. He takes it for granted that he can do it well, he’s not looking for praise. I’ve lived in France for 30 years. I speak French. Get over it!

Jane Birkin and Charlotte Rampling, two British actresses of practically the same age, are both idolised in France. Rampling’s Englishness is undetectable in French, while Birkin’s heavily accented French does nothing to disguise her original nationality. But they are both highly articulate in French, especially Birkin defending an array of worthwhile causes. Never mind the accent, hear the words.

But oddness in other people’s accents is always in the ear of the listener. At the age of 3 or 4, my daughter, brought up in France by two British parents, was having her first real experience of playing on her own with an English kid. Her friend suddenly called out: “Hey, mum, Chloe’s got a funny accent!” But it’s hard to convey in writing the effect of this. Suffice it to say that her playmate’s dad was from Hull, his mum was from Newcastle, and each and every vowel he uttered was a diphthong betraying the influences of both parents. A funny accent, indeed!