Thursday, April 19, 2007

I'm all ears

When you work with the general public you become aware of trends that you would probably never notice. For example I noticed that during the years 1994-97, most young, male, middle-class customers ended a transaction by saying 'Bye now', as if they were presenting a television programme for young children. Then it suddenly stopped for no discernible reason. Looking back, the only two events of 1997 were Tony Blair and Princess Diana. Perhaps they'd OD'd on touchyfeelyness and felt a need to get back in touch with their inner Conservative. I don't know.

Another example is from about eight years ago, when several people I knew started saying 'Blahdiblah'. I'd never heard anyone say the phrase outside New York, but suddenly it became the default option for anyone who wanted to cut a sentence short. I waited patiently and sure enough, it suddenly disappeared without a trace after a couple of years.

I also recall when AQI (Australian Questioning Intonation) suddenly appeared out of nowhere. One day my wife came home from work and everything she said sounded like a question. It was bloody annoying, but she wasn't even aware of it. Somebody new had arrived in her office and their speech inflections passed around like a virus. I'm acutely aware of accents, probably because I grew-up in a working-class family and changed my accent in my teens, but my wife rarely notices how people speak.

I remember Orwell writing about his days as a tramp and noting his surprise at how many fellow vagrants failed to notice his Eton accent. Orwell concluded that some people aren't attuned to oral idiosyncrasies and are more likely to judge by appearance.

Several years ago I read something by Chomsky about this and it was a huge relief to find that I wasn't in some 'Invasion of the Body Snatchers' scenario. Chomsky argued that language works like a virus, inveigling its way into the collective subconsciousness and I'm sure that anyone who works with the public and is attuned to accents will have noticed this phenomenon.

If you haven't, you probably think I'm completely barmy.

6 comments:

Jan said...

I have a friend who seriously practised A.Q.I at home each evening, in front of a mirror as she was so determined to get it right...
( I don't know if you noticed at the time, but SOME folk shimmered their eyes/hair/teeth along with the inflections....hence my friend's mirror)
" Neighbours" has a lot to answer for.

Elizabeth Baines said...

Now I'm blushing. I'm one of the worst culprits at picking up accents. I talk like whoever I'm speaking to and I don't know I'm doing it until my partner points it out. I put it down to moving round the country when I was a child (woe betide you if you didn't pick up the local accent within a fortnight). I've never done AQI though. (I don't THINK...!)

Andrew MishMash said...

Hi Steerforth

The technical term for the AQI is ATI - Antipodean Terminating Interogative - because Kiwi's do it too, but it isn't so grating due to their flatter vowels. Feesh ind cheeps; fush ond chups. Apologies for the scattershot accusation; that's contemporary philosophy for you.

In America it is called the Californian Terminating Interogative, allegedly.

I read a lot of Chomsky on inate language programming when I was a student; now I only remember horrifically cruel experimnets hatching songthrush eggs in soundproof chambers. Tho I might be wrong about that.

Jan said...

Very Polite Note to Elizabeth:
You meant, surely, to say:" I don't think??"
( eyes/hair/teeth shimmering..??)

I once confused bladiblah with bananarama*; there was much merriment over this.

* You will recall it was the same period..

Andrew MishMash said...

The current vogue for using non-existent plurals infuriates me.

Fruits
Foods
Behaviours [especially as part of the official civil service term "terrorist-behaviours" IKYN]

And made-up compound reflexive verbs.

To self-harm
To mark-make

We're not German you know.

Chin Chin

Drew

Sara said...

Oh, I inadvertently do it often. I don't notice myself doing it at first and then suddenly I become aware and embarrassed. I assume it's a friendly thing tho', a fitting in and trying to make the other person comfortable type of a thing. I mainly do posh-ish, East End, Essex, Australian and a rather vague Northern accent. In fact whenever I speak on the phone to a call centre or some such I hear the Northernish accent come out of my mouth for some reason.
I am often asked where I am from, and people are puzzled by my reply.
When I went traveling around Europe I became more Neighbours sounding than English!