Arts & Culture / Mosaic / October 12, 2011

Diversity accented: students discuss accents and backgrounds

Do you pronounce “aunt” the same as “ant”? Speaking in Ethiopian, Texan, Dutch, Californian and other accents, the most diverse incoming class Knox has ever had adds to the dozens of accents spoken on campus. Reflecting on their accents and differences in regional saying and cultures, 10 students spoke about how they speak. To show possible differences in accents, students interviewed read a list of words such as “pecan” and “Reese’s Pieces” and a paragraph from the Worldwide Accent Project, where participants from all over the world upload videos of themselves reading a standard paragraph

Anna Nguyen, sophomore


Nguyen, who is Vietnamese-Polish, was born Vietnam and lived in Poland since she was five years old.

“It’s like a clash of different cultures. Sometimes it’s hard for me to see really if I’m Polish or Vietnamese because I feel like I don’t belong to any of those places,” she said.

She said she feels like a foreigner in both places and that she has a very Polish accent because she learned English through Polish teachers.

“It’s not Vietnamese at all,” she said of her accent.

Compared to an American accent, a Polish accent is different because they do not say ‘r,’ but pronounce it as Hispanics do, with a rolling ‘r.’

“But we don’t have accents. We don’t. Accents don’t exist in Polish,” Nguyen said.

Joe Olvera, senior

Austin, Texas

Olvera said people describe Austin as “the Berkeley of the South” because it is hip and really different from the rest of Texas.

Referencing a Texan accent, Olvera said, “It’s definitely got that Southern, sort of cowboyish tone … it’s definitely different than Illinois, that’s for sure.”

Also different from Illinois sayings, he said at home they say “get down from the car” instead of “get out” and say “y’all” because it is convenient and “howdy” is a good term because it works well if you are passing by someone. Drinks such as Pepsi and Dr. Pepper are referred to as “soda” and sometimes even as “Coke,” which can cause confusion.

“I worked at a movie theater once and there was a lot of people that would show up and ask for a Coke and I would give them a Coke — a Coca-Cola — and they would be upset that it wasn’t a Sprite,” Olvera said.

Aneesha Madugalle, sophomore

Sri Lanka

“My dad is from a place called Kand… that’s where everything started, the kings and the queens … I think that sort of Kandian dressing style is one of the most important things, I would say, in Sri Lanka.”

People noticed her accent, a “British way of pronouncing things,” but she said those from South Asia do not have accents, especially those Sri Lanka, because they do not say words in a different way than how it is spelled. While exposed to some American accents, she said some speakers spoke too fast for her to understand and she even changed the way she said words.

“I think when I came here, the way I pronounce certain words changed a lot. It became a lot more American, I guess. I noticed certain words. I don’t know if I’m doing it consciously but like, aunt, I would say like ‘ant’ just for people to get it and not think about it twice,” she said.

Phil Bennett, sophomore

Culver City (Greater Los Angeles), California

Describing a Californian accent, Bennett said it was “relaxed, laid back even.”

“I feel like it even reflects almost the physical, even like geographical make-up of the state almost, just kind of like way the beaches feel, like some of the parts feel … just like the environment and the weather, too,” he said.

Describing Los Angeles, Bennett said, “It’s very diverse, first of all. There are a variety of languages spoken and there are many different neighborhoods to reflect the different kinds of people who move to Los Angeles.”

Also reflecting this diversity, Bennett is of Native American and Hispanic descent and was born into a Jewish family.

“I’ve been to over 30 bar mitzvahs and one quincenera,” he said.

“I feel like Knox is such like a microcosm of the world regarding different kinds of cultures and the languages spoken,” he said of the diversity at Knox.

“I hope people take advantage and go out there and start talking and learning about people because it’s not every day that you get a chance to talk to someone for five minutes and talk to them about their accent,” he said.

Kat Quesnell, senior

Milwaukee, Wisconsin

From Milwaukee, said without the “l,” Quesnell said people there do not consider themselves to have an accent.

“I remember growing up being taught especially in speech classes … but also in drama classes how lucky we were to grow up in the Midwest where we have the ‘ideal American accent,’” she said.

Typical of a Wisconsinite, Quesnell calls a water fountain the alternate name of a “bubbler,” because according to one story, the manufacturer of water fountains had the last name of Bubbler.

Referring to another difference in saying, she said, “When I came down here, I noticed that I refer to bags that you put merchandise into as ‘bags’ and not ‘sacks.’ And I was confused a couple of times when people at the bookstore asked me to put it in a sack.”

Peter Buiting, freshman


From a village Buiting said that most Dutch people think they speak English above average and “most Dutch people are not completely right about that.”

“As it’s a small country, most people feel the need to speak as many languages as they can,” he said.

Buiting speaks English, Dutch, French (“at an acceptable level”) and German (“at a slightly below an acceptable level”).

“Mastering a language is the first thing but speaking accentless is something that hardly anyone reaches,” he said.

“Some people say that language unites a people but it’s not really happening like that. If you the slightest accent, people … fill in a certain background and have a certain image of you. So for example, Christopher Lee is considered more civilized than let’s say John Malkovich,” he said.

In the Netherlands, Buiting said, accents in English are not influenced by background language but the amount of English they hear and the amount of effort they put into learning English.

Weizhi Feng, sophomore

Xian, China

“It’s probably the oldest city in China that has 3,000 years of history. People who live in there have really traditional ideas,” Feng said about Xian.

He said a difficult part of learning a foreign language is finding annotations. For Eastern accents, especially for Chinese accents, he said they tend to split words by syllables because of the nature of their native language.

“It’d be more comfortable for us to say ‘com-for-ta-ble’ than ‘comfortable,’” he said.

Within China, with the most popular languages being Mandarin and Cantonese, speakers of those languages have different accents. Those from southern China, when they speak English, they add the suffix “hello la” which comes from saying “ni hao la” in their native language.

Yoni Werkneh, freshman


From Ethiopia, Werkneh spent the last two years in Ghana to attend international school. A native speaker of Amharic, a language similar to Arabic, he began speaking English in high school.

“It’s very clear that I got an accent. Most of them Americans especially, they like an accent. I don’t know why but they usually tell me that they like my accent. But I don’t really like it,” Werkneh said.

He said he does not like his accent because he wants to speak in the way native English speakers speak.

“I want to be fluent so that people can easily understand it. You know what, sometimes I have to repeat the same thing I said again and again so the listener can understand it,” he said.

Cameron Posey, senior

Clinton, Maryland

Posey said an accent from Maryland is “kind of Southern-ish” and would say “Clinton” without a hard “t.” With his accent, he said those at Knox cannot distinguish when he says “ghosts” and “goats,” but when he is at home, people know the difference.

“As for noticing other people’s accents, mostly international students I notice because they’re international but other than that, I couldn’t really tell other people’s accents from other states in the United States,” he said.

Stephanie Charvat, junior

Lombard, Ill.

Living in Illinois for all of her life, Charvat said she has a “bad ear for accents” but she said,

“I’ve travelled a lot though and most of the shows I watch are in British English or in Japanese so I think my accent is not quite the normal, Midwestern accent.”

Different from her own family, she used to pronounce “Renaissance,” the French way and her family used to coax her to say the word again. However, she does not usually notice an accent except when travelling or talking to other people with accents such as when she talked to a British couple and they told her she had an accent.

*Note: Aneesha Madugalle works for The Knox Student.

Sheena Leano

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