25 October 2009


I was watching one of the Swedish Wallander episodes the other night. They're brilliant programmes, and thankfully subtitled rather than dubbed. You really begin to feel you're learning Swedish as you watch, because sometimes the rhythm of speech sounds so much like English - or even more like Scots. It turns out that the Swedish for come in - a phrase people use a lot - is komm ein. I'm picking up some words that I'd heard in Grieg songs: glömma is forget and aldrig is never. The usual word for good is bra (pronounced braw), which is exactly Scottish.

However, to get to my point, towards the end of this episode, a clue was given by a child. Watching a children's animation, she says "That's how they [the attackers] spoke." I assumed they (the animation characters) were speaking Swedish with an accent. The attackers turn out to have been north Africans. In fact, replaying, I've realised that the speech was in French. It's a brief, quiet speech and it took a while to realise this. Obviously, first time around, I thought it was just more Swedish I didn't understand. But a Swedish viewer would have known immediately that the speech was in a foreign language, even if they didn't know which one.

Moving on to a question of accents, there's a character (Marco Zuluaga) in Almodóvar's film Hable con Ella who turns out to be Argentinian. This is, I assume, obvious for a Spanish audience from his accent, but it's only apparent to an English-speaking audience (me) when one of the other characters refers to him as "The Argentinian", as if it were obvious. For a moment you wonder who she's talking about. His nationality doesn't seem to be significant to the plot, but the accent must arouse stereotype assumptions in a Spanish audience, just as an Australian accent in an English film would.

The final example is from Balzac. Several of his novels feature a character called Nucingen, who's German, and don't we know it. He speaks like this: Je fus tonne ma barole t'honneur te vaire le bossiple, which in standard French is je vous donne ma parole d'honneur de faire le possible. It's a fairly simple system: voiced consonants (d, b) are replaced by unvoiced equivalents (t, p) and vice versa. It's really fucking irritating, though. Every speech is represented this way, and always in italics. I suppose in time you don't have to read aloud or subvocalise to get the meaning, but I've never got to that stage. You have to stop and listen to the sound. I don't know how English translations handle this: to be accurate, they'd have to be really fucking irritating too.

So, three examples of ways of signifying, or not, a foreign accent. Another thing for me to get exercised about.

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