(First published in The Dominion Post, October 17.)
YEARS AGO, while on a government-sponsored visit to Germany, I noticed my official guide smirking as he eavesdropped on the conversation of some of our fellow passengers on a train trip between Karlsruhe and Berlin.
He later explained that the group’s accent identified them as coming from a provincial region in the north of Germany. A resident of sophisticated Bonn himself, he clearly regarded them as yokels. His contempt couldn’t have been more obvious.
It lodged in my memory not just as extraordinarily unprofessional, coming from someone employed to promote a newly-unified Germany, but as a striking lesson in how human beings put others down purely because of the way they speak.
Mocking other people’s accents is an age-old way of asserting cultural and social superiority.
It’s also one of the easiest ways in which to poke fun at other nationalities - a fact cleverly exploited by the scriptwriters of TV comedies such as Hogan’s Heroes and ’Allo ’Allo!, in which the Germans and French were mercilessly caricatured on the basis of their accents.
Fifty years ago, Peter Sellers sold lots of records with his wickedly clever impersonation of Indians. Would he get away with it today? Probably not. Cultural sensitivity would rule it out. Yet some accents are still considered fair game - including our own.
On the American talk show Last Week Tonight, British comedian John Oliver had great fun recently with a New Zealand television news clip about the fuss over the National Party’s alleged plagiarising of a track by rapper Eminem in its election advertising.
Two aspects appealed to Oliver. The first was National campaign manager Steven Joyce’s reaction when journalists asked him whether National had obtained copyright clearance to use the Eminem song.
Joyce’s reply - "We think it’s, um, pretty legal” - amused Oliver, who suggested the politician would make an entertaining defence lawyer.
But what also attracted Oliver’s attention, perhaps inevitably, was the accent of the New Zealand television reporter featured in the clip. Her pronunciation of “Eminem”, in particular, so amused him that he attempted his own imitation – not once but twice, to the great mirth of his audience.
Fair enough; I cringe too at the pronunciation of television journalists. Some give the impression they’re on a mission to destroy every trace of euphony in the English language.
This particular reporter’s pinched pronunciation of the vowels in “Eminem” was enough to make even me wince, and I’m a New Zealander.
But then, with accents, who’s to say that one is worse than another? All accents are capable of being made to sound ridiculous.
Several years ago, simple-minded Australians (no jokes about tautology, please) hooted with delight at the famous “Beached Az, Bro” video – an Australian-made cartoon in which a beached whale with a Kiwi accent declined an offer of a potato chup because he could only eat plinkton.
It wasn’t terribly clever, but it played to the widespread perception among Australians that New Zealand is a slightly more backward version of Tasmania.
Even an intelligent magazine like the Spectator Australia can’t resist having a dig. In an editorial devoted to National’s election victory a couple of weeks ago, it referred to events across the “dutch”.
But really, can anyone say the New Zealand accent is intrinsically more absurd than one that pronounces chips as cheeps, kiwi as koy-woy, pool as pewel and today as to die? Or, for that matter, ditch as deetch?
I suppose we just have to accept that New Zealand English can sound odd to other ears. What apparently doesn’t occur to most Australians, with their nationalistic braggadocio, is that their accent can sound pretty tortured too.
And what about the Brits? Once, travelling on a train in France, I spent several minutes trying to figure out the nationality of the young men who were sharing my compartment. It eventually dawned on me that they were from England and that the language they were speaking was nominally the same as mine.
No one from a country with Britain’s quaint assortment of impenetrable regional accents is in a position to poke fun at the way other people speak. At least a New Zealander from Kaitaia can understand one from Invercargill, which is not something that can be said for the British.
So perhaps people like Oliver should lay off the jokes about other cultures’ accents. It’s a cheap way of point-scoring, and it often says a lot more about the mocker than the mocked.