Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Accents in Swedish-America

I don’t have much of an accent. I’m from Colorado. I don’t have a southern drawl. I don’t have that obnoxious northeastern inability to enunciate. I speak a relatively clean American English. Which is why I was so very confused when speaking on the phone to my local cable provider.

I do have a habit of mumbling while speaking on the phone. Mostly because I hate it. But mumbling does not equal an accent. The lady on the other end would apparently disagree.

I explained that I needed to set up internet and that I had just moved here. She asked if I had moved from overseas. I was taken aback, because, technically I had. She went on to explain that I had an English accent. As in British. As in God Save the Queen. I explained that I was actually from the United States. As in American. As in God Bless America. She continued to shove her foot into her mouth when she explained that her mother was Irish. As in born there. As in speaks with an Irish accent.

This made it so much worse. Her own mother has an accent, and one that is much closer to Great Britain than the United States.

To be perfectly honest, an inability to distinguish between an American and British accent is concerning. Almost as concerning as an inability to recognize that Swedish is not, in fact, English with a Swedish accent. Let’s just say the linguistic knowledge of my new surroundings is lacking.

This was not the only time in the past few days that my new home has struggled with accents.

My father has been living in this country for 20 some years. Hell he has lived in the US longer than I have and he doesn’t even have citizenship. Silly alien. He also does not have an accent. In fact, if his name was John Smith rather than BGC, you would have no idea he was Swedish. Aside from his Viking-like constitution. Obviously.

So when I was recently told by a Wisconsinite that my father had an accent, I was taken aback. Mostly because the whole time I was listening to him speak, I was hearing a Midwest stereotype come out of his mouth. I was waiting for him to break out a wheel of cheese and start gnawing on it.

The guilty party in this sordid tale knew my old man’s story before he actually met him. Knew he was Swedish. It’s almost as if he was hoping to hear an accent. Drumming it up in his mind before he had met him. Trying to validate the stereotype he had created.

Welcome to Swedish-America. And linguistic adventures.

Subscribe to a Swedish American in Sweden


  1. Hairy, This is disconcerting. You speak perfectly lucid American English, just as I imagine I do. You are completely comprehensible; you have no "accent." However, many years ago upon meeting the wife of a Navy buddy, both of whom were from Tupelo, Mississippi, I was deemed by the Mrs. to have "the cutest brogue." Think about it.

  2. I haven't been out of the country and spent most of my life in Northern California.
    Everybody here thinks I'm from New York. People from the east coast get specific. They tell me I sound like I'm from Upper Manhattan accent.
    I suppose that's better than Yonkers.

  3. I disagree, when I was in Sweden and I had met my pen pal and her family, her brother knew the most English and sometimes when he would talk it sounded a lot like a British accent.

  4. well, let's throw this into the pile. I am a American..born and breed. yet when I go to another country..NO ONE, I MEAN NO ONE thinks I am an Amercian. They want to know when I immigrated...HA!

    The truth is, I speak or at least make a vain attempt, to speak other languages..including Swedish..which some how disqualifies me from being American. Let alone thinking swedish is english with an American accent (but I am told I have a stockholm accent when I attempt swedish so that makes me...ahhhhhhh, hummm swenglish) Never mind the fact my accenstory is Danish and German..
    Så ja ja, jag bor i USA, Los Angeles faktiskt, men det verkar jag inte så "Amerciana" med min någonsin så california accent **** FNISS *** ....

  5. This is funny. I met a Chilean Swedish in Sweden and as I don't speak Swedish (apart from the usual "hej" and some other words I can't spell on this Brazilian laptop keyboard) and he was not comfortable talking in English, we would talk in Spanish: he with a Swedish accent, of course, despite his Chilean upbringing; me with a Brazilian/Swedish twist/wannabe perfect Spanish speaker accent. Well, we managed to talk.
    Okay, not so funny. But at least I did not buy any beds at IKEA :P

  6. Are you kidding me? I come from New Jersey...if you thought that accent was bad in English, you should hear it in Swedish!

  7. Hearing yourself speak can be quite disconcerting. Normally you hear your own voice from "inside the boom box" so to speak. Try recording your voice and then listen again - and see if you recognise it. I prefer my inner voice.

  8. @Ron – I suppose it is all relative. But come on, brogue?

    @Rebecca – hmmm, its gotta be the coast thing.

    @Dee – very true. That is because many Swedes grow up learning British English. I, on the other hand, have lived in the US for about 18 years and grew up speaking American English.

    @Debbie – just making an attempt at the local language seems to garner a whole lot of respect. So well done.

    @asazevedo – hey now, lets not make fun. Beds from IKEA are awesome.

    @Gabe – that sounds… amazing?

    @EGAN – my voice seems to change depending on which language I am speaking. But either way, I much prefer my inner voice as well. My inner voice always agrees with me.

  9. Hello Hairy,

    I really enjoy your blog. Naturally, I started reading just before you left Sweden to return to the U.S. (I was a bit disappointed, because I found your observations on Sweden and Swedish culture fascinating.)

    Regarding accents in the U.S. I am from Florida, but have cousins in Colorado. I understand why you would say that you don't have an accent being from Colorado, but really, everyone has an accent. It's just that some accents lend themselves much more to being made fun of, satirized, poorly imitated, etc.

    Anyway, I look forward to reading about your adventures in Wisconsin. The only place in the Midwest I've been to is Minnesota, where they definitely have an accent!! Cheers!

  10. I can't believe you! Of course the woman on the other side of the line was hitting on you! Likewise that time in bar, remember?!

  11. P.s.
    I have been told I have accent million times, when speaking Persian or I could not be raised in Iran for that matter. The list of countries I come from^^ is handful. States comes first then England! and then Germany, in fact the other night some Swedish friend asked me if I could speak German as I apparently spoke with a German accent, and some other night as (wonders never cease) some German told me (not based on accent or appearance but rather based on other things, she couldn't explain , she wouldn't have been surprised if I had told her I was from Germany). But you know what? I guess they were drunk or sth!

  12. @Jen in FL – absolutely agree, although there is a bit of a difference between a Colorado accent and a British accent.

    I think Im going to have to head up to Minnesota at some point, probably just to listen to the accent.

    @Todd – yes… how could I have missed it?

    It always amazes me how people perceive others and their accents or lack thereof. Sounds like you’ve got quite a few stories about that.

  13. When I was told I had a NY accent(actually Queens,NY which is truly atrocious,
    if I must say so myself...which I must) by a College Professor...I was stunned...

    Yes an Accent is Always in the Third in You have an accent...
    but "I" never do...
    (FYI I have since lost mine but one never knows when it will catch up to one again
    ; )

    and Midwest "accents" do seem to sound "neutral"
    I do think it is partly because you do pronounce all your consonants...
    a handy trick I copied

    but also IMHO because it is "cinema standard" so we are all get used to hearing it in movies, news shows etc...

    as an aside:
    I was watching an Old Old movie the other day...and the actors were supposed to be in the heartland but they all had these really pronounced NY- lower east side...tirty tird street - accents it was Hilarious and obviously why "cinema standard was born IMHO

  14. some of those old movies are just incredible when it comes to the accents. if anything, they make the movie all the more enjoyable.