We watch a lot of British mysteries on TV – Foyles War, New Tricks, Inspector Gently, although that one may be over because at the end of the last episode, both Gently and his pain in the ass sidekick got shot – Gently actually got shot twice – they looked pretty bad, and the show was not on the following week so they may very well be dead, in which case, we will not be watching them anymore, although what a strange way to end a series. The protagonists both dead? That would never happen on American TV. Well, maybe on cable. But even there, I mean, “I know we’re cable, but couldn’t we just murder the sidekick?”
If there were ever an Emmy for “Best ‘Downer’ Ending of a Series”… the two actors could come walking out in tuxedos,
“We’re not really dead, just our characters. Although we are now consequently out of work.”
I’d kind of like to see something like that.
The thing here is this.
We watch all these mysteries, and a lot of them are set in small English towns – Hastings, Oxford, up north in Yorkshire. And as a result of those settings, the characters on the shows often speak in what is, to our ears, undecipherable accents.
Not that if the shows were set in London we would understand every word. It’s still England. But, in those less cosmopolitan localities and especially the further north you go, the more it sounds like they’re clearing their throats while speaking. And all we can pick up is the throat clearing.
What do we do when we can’t understand the accents?
We turn up the volume.
Our behavior suggesting that indecipherability is more comprehensible when it’s louder. (A strategy akin to speaking more slowly to a person who doesn’t understand English. As if it were the case that, “Slow English, I understand perfectly. Fast English – not a word.” I have never once seen that “talking slower” thing work. Have you?)
What happens when we turn up the volume?
What we generally end up with is loud throat clearing.
Hearing everything is important in mysteries. In a romantic series, you can look in their eyes and see they like each other. Words there are just confirmation. But in a mystery, they are telling you important stuff about the case. You miss out on that essential expository information, and you’re watching a bunch of “policemen” walking around England.
Which, for us, turns out to be better than anything on American TV.
There a point this foolishness. And it’s coming up right now.
I’ve been watching British mysteries for decades. Struggling with the accents, while admiring the palatial manor houses and the opulent landscapes. And after all that time, a thought popped into my head for the very first time:
“I wonder if these people I can’t understand would have an equal amount of difficulty understanding me.”
I am aware that this is hardly a “Stop the Presses!” illumination, but it had honestly never occurred to me before. My surprise came, not only in thinking this thought for the first time, but also in my reflexive response to the question.
“I wonder if those people could understand me”?
My Reflective Response: “Why wouldn’t they?”
I don’t speak with an accent.
Have you ever heard anyone say,
“The American accent is entirely undecipherable to me.”
Of course, it’s possible they are just being polite. Or, may-be, the American accent is not comparatively impenetrable because…
We don’t have one.
Excluding regional dialects, such as rural “Southerners” and “Hill people.” (Documentaries about them regularly include subtitles.) The majority of us speak uninflected English, like the groomed-for-the-job national news anchor whom someone once parodied saying,
“Good evening. I’m from nowhere.”
Everyone understands Brian Williams.
At that point, logic overcame chauvinism and I was forced to at least consider that if we don’t understand people, it is entirely reasonable to believe that the people we don’t understand will not be able to understand us.
Although I could not possibly me explain why. It’s logical, of course. But it somehow feels…wrong.
A friend who overheard me musing about why they would have trouble understanding us explained,
“Because we don’t speak like them.”
That’s true. But unlike them, we speak clearly and dialect-free.
My most recent theory – not entirely devoid of paranoia – is that if the people we don’t understand – like the ones on those English mysteries – were to say same thing about us, they are simply paying us back.
They understand us just fine.
They just refuse to give us the satisfaction.