The minute I hear a voice on the phone I try to guess who is speaking. For close friends, just the briefest of sounds will be enough – so just the ‘hell’ of ‘hello’ – and getting it right gives me a real buzz. It is an odd pastime but in my case one born out of necessity. As a child it was important to identify whether or not the voice I was hearing was that of my mother. She was an actress and mistress of disguises, so I needed to be sure whether it was the real mother who was speaking. This required an ear attuned to the subtlest differences in timbre and this came quickly.
Out of this childhood skill, grew an almost compulsive desire to work out where people come from based on how they speak. On meeting someone face-to-face, or hearing a voice on the radio, the timbre-sensitive bits of my ears immediately start flapping. Sometimes placement is easy, as when for instance the accent is out-and-out Glaswegian or Brummie. On other occasions it can take time and concentration as with those who have lived abroad for years and have retained only a vestige of their original accents, or have learned to speak the mishmash of ‘internationalese’.
It appears that I am not alone in my interest in using voices to trace a person’s origins. Recently I discovered from a television interview with the London-based correspondent of Le Monde that pinpointing a person’s birthplace from their accent is actually a British obsession. What is more, some of us Britaniques go so far as to try and determine a person’s class from how people speak! To the French reporter this is all very strange and certainly not something his fellow countrymen do. One problem they have in France is that accents vary little from one region to another. A second, he asserted, is that class differences in France are not reflected in how people speak.
But whatever the French do amongst themselves, it does not stop them trying to spot my origins when I speak. And how it annoys me! My struggle to develop a passable French accent has been difficult and in the early days it would really hurt when in reply to my “bonjour”, passers-by would immediately say in English, ‘”good morning”. In time I was promoted and my French mutterings engendered the question (in French) “Are you from Ireland?” Then, as I became more competent, ‘Ireland?’ was often replaced by ‘Germany?’ And, last weekend, the complexion of the comments changed again. I was buying a mac in Paris and speaking in a French I believe is almost there. Suddenly, the young woman serving me turned to her colleague and, referring to how I spoke, whispered “qu’il est mignon” (isn’t it sweet). Then, after a brief discussion, they agreed that it would be such a shame if I ever changed it!
In fact, I have known for some years that my goal of mastering French pronunciation was unrealistic. The truth dawned during a conversion with another shop assistant; she on this occasion was deaf. As I neared the front of the queue I noticed a sign on the counter saying that the woman at the till used lip-reading, and to help her understand asked customers to face her when speaking and not to hold things in front of their mouths. I did what was requested and the commercial part of our dealings went without a hitch. That over, she lent forward and, based on how my mouth and face moved as I formed the words, politely asked me if I was English.
My spirits dropped, after her comment I realised that at my age the task of speaking like a Frenchman was well nigh impossible. It was now too late to retrain all those muscles around my mouth. But, at least in the linguistics guessing game I, along with many other foreigners, are giving the more inquisitive French some fun.