Wednesday, July 31, 2013

"Say Again?"

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. 

They do.

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.

Don’t they?

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. 


JED said...

When I traveled to France ten years after my last French lesson from high school, I asked people I was talking with to slow down and I found that it helped me understand them. Of course, once they heard my French accent and knew I wasn't a native speaker, they also raised their voices and gestured with their hands more. Maybe that's why I understood them.

As far as British mystery shows, my wife and I often just give up and turn on the closed captioning. One mystery in the show is enough.

angel said...

I saw that final episode of George Gently and came to work the next morning asking people in Programming if they had seen it. None had and so they didn't understand what I was so upset about. Totally a downer of an episode. So being I work in Broadcasting and have access to episodes and seasons (the public can check out their website and get similar information) my data base seems to indicate that there is another season. I am hanging on the hope that, if the series has another season, that means at least someone lived. Oh and thanks so much for watching us. :-)

Mac said...

"Which, for us, turns out to be better than anything on American TV."

Ha ha! only this morning the (British) Guardian paper was lamenting why "New Tricks" (UK Cop show) is so bad, compared to say, The Wire. Unfair comparison, as it's a big daft undemanding high-rated show that's not trying to deal with issues like Wire did.

But then there's all that HBO, FX, IFC etc etc. The big question in UK drama (and particularly police shows), is - why can't we do it as good as the Americans? So mind how green that grass looks on the other side.

Americans and Canadians categorically do have an accent - a very strong one, but all British people grew up with US TV, so they can understand it fine.
A strong Southern US accent is less easy to understand, just because there were much fewer of them on TV, so British people heard fewer of them growing up. Equally a Newfoundland accent is pretty tough to understand, simply because there weren't international programmes from that area.

Rebecca said...

I know I'm late to this post, but I did just want to second Jed's comment. When I traveled to France *while* I was still taking French in college AND in spite of hearing the Cajun version spoken all around me until I was 18, the most common phrase I uttered every year that I went was,

"Plus lentement, s'il vous plait."

More slowly, please.

A few repetitions, each slower and louder than the last, and I almost always finally understood.