Sounding Off

8 November 2007 at 23:00 Leave a comment

Yesterday Mark Liberman at Language Log posted about a Christian Science Monitor article by Matthew Rusling, an American expat living in Japan. Since Rusling picked up Japanese intonation and idioms from his Japanese girlfriend, he unknowingly picked up speech patterns that native listeners interpreted as female.

I had a similar problem the year I lived in Sweden, although I ended up sounding like the someone of a different age, rather than a different gender. Since I was attending classes at a folkhögskola — roughly equivalent to an American community college — I spent a lot of time listening to and talking with people in their late teens and early twenties.

By the end of the year, my Swedish was fluent, but it was fluent teenage-speak, which must have sounded ridiculous coming out of the mouth of a thirty-something woman with a vaguely American accent. Imagine a middle-aged immigrant in this country speaking fluent, American slang with a non-native accent, and you’ll get the idea — something like Dan Akroyd and Steve Martin’s two Czech brothers, the Wild and Crazy Guys of Saturday Night Live fame.

Of course it didn’t help that my classmates were always trying to get me to say things that they knew sounded goofy — either because they knew it was something I couldn’t pronounce quite right or because it was up-to-the-minute hipster slang. Even three years later, some of my Swedish friends will still try to get me to pronounce the words for frogs (grodor) and sprouts (groddar), two pronunciations I have a particularly hard time with.

One last point about Rusling’s original article and some of the responses to the Language Log post. Two other anglophone men mentioned similar problems with learning Japanese. One even concludes “…Just resign yourself to talking like a little girl for the rest of your life and hope to God that no one beats you up.” The underlying message is that, for men, sounding like a woman opens you up to ridicule, if not violence.” Interesting that, apparently even in Japan, the country that brought us the onnagata (male Kabuki actors, often renowned, who play female roles), one of the worst transgressions a man can commit is doing something that might cause him to be mistaken for a woman.


Entry filed under: Friends, Language, Life, NaBloPoMo, Politics, Sweden. Tags: , , , .

Reason # 4124 Why Everything’s Better in Sweden Friday Fiddle Tune

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