January 11, 2005 1:12 AM   Subscribe

When I hear English spoken with, say, a Spanish or a Persian accent, I find it interesting and intriguing. However, whenever I hear Spanish or Farsi spoken with an (American) English accent, I find it irritating and unattractive.
Why doesn't it work both ways? (+)

I guess there are certain foreign accents that aren't exactly sexy in English, either, but is there a reason why this is so?
In your native tongues, what foreign accents are considered attractive? Which not so much?
posted by BuddhaInABucket to Writing & Language (20 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Maybe you just don't like the American accent. A more intriguing question would be why you think it should "work both ways."
posted by shoos at 1:58 AM on January 11, 2005

Well, are you a native speaker in all three languages? If so, then it would be odd that you're irritated by hearing Spanish and Farsi being spoken with an American accent and not by hearing English with a Spanish accent.

If you've learnt Spanish and Farsi as foreign languages, but are very good at them and otherwise very good at picking up accents, it may be that you're a little frustrated at hearing someone who hasn't got to the same stage you have reached.

What makes a foreign accent sexy? Not sure about that one. In my experience, some French people find French spoken with an English accent sexy (though I've only got experience with the British variety - not sure what they make of an American accent), if that helps.
posted by altolinguistic at 1:59 AM on January 11, 2005

A Ukranian ex-girlfriend of mine found it incredibly sexy when I spoke (very limited) Ukranian with an American accent. She said it applied to Russian too, so I guess it is sexy in some languages.
posted by TungstenChef at 2:36 AM on January 11, 2005

My experience is that I invariably hate my own accent in a foreign language, and people who aren't as advanced as I am have accents that grate on me by extension. I have been told that my accent is cute when I try to speak French, but that was by a guy who was trying to hit on me, not the bank tellers, etc, who are more annoyed than charmed.

Not an explanation, but a speculation... it's partly resentment for my own lack of a native-speaker accent, transferred onto other people; also, as foreign language learners, we have to pay acute conscious attention to people's speech to understand it. Even if I can do person-to-person conversation, phone conversations, listening to the radio, and listening to people with even the mildest speech impediments is frustrating, because I can only understand if I concentrate with my full attention. Native speakers are used to dealing with accents and the like, and have enough exposure to the language to compensate for them without frustration.
posted by Jeanne at 4:35 AM on January 11, 2005

Also, our language isn't as lyrical or rhythmic. Spanish, French and Italian (and others) have a pattern that's aurally pleasing, even if it's gibberish. We often get that rhythm wrong when speaking (i just did it in Italy), placing emphasis on the wrong syllables, wrong pronounciation, and stuff.

It's like even if we're saying the right words, we're saying them off-key.
posted by amberglow at 4:56 AM on January 11, 2005

I also noticed that when Italians spoke to me in English, they would make mistakes that actually sounded better than the correct english pronounciation--it was as if they were subconsciously making our words and sentences sound more like theirs or more pleasing or something--a soft A or O or E instead of a hard one, and stuff like that.
posted by amberglow at 5:00 AM on January 11, 2005

I just think it's a mystery. Some insight might come from the fact that children speaking a foreign language, French, for example, or even British, are arguably cuter than adults speaking the same language. On the other hand, adults speaking British English quickly become annoying.

I have no answers, but love foreign accents.
posted by ParisParamus at 5:03 AM on January 11, 2005

On the other hand, a woman with a Scotish accent makes me melt.
posted by ParisParamus at 5:04 AM on January 11, 2005

Or an Irish accent.

I have to believe this comes down to personal taste. My personal taste leads me to believe that the romance languages are more attractive to the ears than anglo-saxon languages. But perhaps English and German, for instance, are better technical languages. By the way Amberglow, Italian is one of the most entertaining languages to listen to, even when just hearing its accent in another language. Spanish spoken with a subtle italian accent is also lovely.
posted by sic at 5:55 AM on January 11, 2005

My british half-brother's theory about british accents was that britain represented power for so long that the accent became sexy via association with the country (because power=sexy). When he spoke russian with a british accent, russian women loved it (as many american women do in english).

America is a less "sexy" culture, not because it isn't powerful, but because it's not at all composed or confident - it's all over the place, like a hyperactive kid. So our accent may carry less appeal.

Also, I think Jeanne makes a good point.
posted by mdn at 6:13 AM on January 11, 2005

I think it all comes down to a) personal choice, and b) cultural expectation.

In the case of (a), it often comes out that people vote the Scottish accent as being pleasant to listen to, but I hate it with a passion (give me Welsh any day). In the case of (b), the French and Italians are perceived as being sexier than other Europeans, so naturally their accents are too.
posted by wackybrit at 6:48 AM on January 11, 2005

I agree with mdn. Its not the accent per se, but the context and the connotations that accent carries.

During the post-war period, movie villians often featured German accents, which sounded "evil" because of their associations with WWII; later, during the Cold War, villians invariable sported Russian accents for the same reason (just watch all the James Bond films in a row and listen for the villains' accents). Whether an accent sounds "evil" or "sexy" or whatever has much more to do with what we think of the speaker's native land than something essential in the accent itself.

The same accent can sound grating when emanating from some people, sexy from others. The distinguished older friend of your parents with the English accent? Sexy as all hell. The English inflection picked up by American exchange students who have just spent a year in the UK? Annoying and pretentious.

Of course, since we're talking about sexiness, this also has everything to do with gender. A lot of American men find French accents coming out of women's mouths to be irresistable, but from men's mouths they sound pretentious and haughty. Many people find American accents to be ugly and uncultured because, well, they think Americans are generally ugly and uncultured.
posted by googly at 6:57 AM on January 11, 2005

Just about any accent is sexy on a woman, with the exception of Lawn Guyland. Even "corny" accents like Minnesota-Wisconsin or Bahston. I'm not sure why this is so.
posted by jonmc at 7:50 AM on January 11, 2005

IAMNAEvolutionaryPhsycologist, but I think the sexiness of strange accents has to do with the possibility of reproducing outside of your gene pool, strengthening immunoresponse, and all that crap.
posted by signal at 8:23 AM on January 11, 2005

It's funny that in Hungary my Hungarian friends don't consider french accents in Hungarian "sexy" - I suppose that that is how they have been sold as a stereotype to the English speaking world via Pepe Le Pu. French accents sound lazy and slurred to Hungarians. Hungarians react badly to Russian accents and Romanian accents as well, while German accents are used by TV actors to confer "nobility" to a character.

As for me... I think that speaking with an accent simply advertises a thrilling "foreigner" experience available to people who were raised in a rather restrictive and ethnically narrow society. I can control my "American" accent by covering it up with my Mother's rural way of speaking, but then I am just a bumpkin. I know a lot of Americans in Hungary who have adopted the Budapest version of "valley girl speak", a grating nasal whine punctuated by abbreviations equivalent to "y'know?".

However, when I speak Romanian - in which I am not fluent - I have to admit: damn, I'm sexy....
posted by zaelic at 8:36 AM on January 11, 2005

zaelic: I suppose the German accent conveying nobility in Hungarian is a leftover from the Austro-Hungarian Empire (with Austrian Germans being higher in the hierarchy)?
posted by Gnatcho at 8:55 AM on January 11, 2005

No, Gnatcho - Hungarian nobility were notoriously anti-Teutonic. I think it goes back to the fact that during the 1930s almost every Hungarian motion picture featured a Hungarian speaking German actor as the "foreign" character.

That said, I actually bailed on a wild "relationship" with an Australian woman some years back because I was driven crazy by the fact that when ever I went to her place I was greeted by "G'day! Wan' a cuppa?"
posted by zaelic at 9:51 AM on January 11, 2005

Cultural connotation and context sound like reasonable explanations, but it could have a musical element as well. Different languages accented onto others could have a rhythmic/melodic relationship that works, or doesn't. I kind of like some African French that I hear in Brussels, many natives don't find it appealing. They are perhaps stuck behind the cultural issues, I'm listening to the music of it.
posted by Jack Karaoke at 12:24 PM on January 11, 2005

I love boston accents on a guy, or southern ones. But not on women. It's my latent heterosexuality showing through.

I really think it's just the novelty factor more than anything.
posted by u.n. owen at 1:35 PM on January 11, 2005

Y'all may be interested to see The Speech Accent Archive, which has clips of people from various linguistic backgrounds reading an English passage. Who knows, you might discover a new favourite accent.
posted by greatgefilte at 3:59 PM on January 11, 2005 [1 favorite]

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