Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Bulgarian accents and Russian Spies

Every year Rhodes students organize a marathon reading of the Odyssey. They develop a schedule and students and professors take turns reading for about 20 minutes each. They start on Friday afternoon and go right through the whole thing finishing around 10 the following morning. It's the kind of awesomely dorky thing that absolutely makes me miss college.

They did the Odyssey Marathon this past Friday and since Prof. Grady had signed up to read I decided to tag along. One of the student readers was a first year student from China. The kid had a thick accent but read VERY well and at the end everyone applauded him. Everyone was really encouraging, kept telling the kid he was doing great and helped him out when he wasn't sure how to pronounce certain words. I was having such a serious flashback to my own freshman year in college, I couldn't say a word.

My accent has been a constant source of worry and anxiety for me for 10 years now. That's how long it's been since I came to the States for the first time in 1999. I've aways known that it's nothing to be embarrassed about but still hate all the attention it attracts. It makes me feel more inadequate and insecure than anything else. I've gotten to a point where my accent doesn't show itself immediately. Usually I need to have talked to someone for an extended period of time before they "catch" me and ask. It doesn't even sound Eastern European as much as it just sounds idiosyncratic. But I hate it. Hate it, hate it, hate it. Still.

A few weeks ago, I got an email from Yolina. She's Bulgarian and lives in Switzerland with her husband Marcel. Yo told me that she had just recently talked to her mentor at work, an American, who told her that sometimes when she talked, she sounded harsh. Actually, he told her she sounded like the Russian Spy in old movies. He didn't mean it in a bad way of course... just sort of... matter of fact. He also made sure it was clear that it was nothing that she said, it was simply the way she was saying it, etc. etc. etc.

Yo and I had a long exchange about that. She queried her husband and her co-workers. I spoke to my in-house linguistic expert (Kyle) and my dear friend Doriana who lives in D.C. There's no consensus on the subject but all have recognized that sometimes Bulgarians can sound a little bit, for lack of a better word, harsh. Kyle thinks its our intonation. Marcel thinks that whatever it is, it comes to the surface only during work-related conversations. Some of Yo's co-workers think it's differences in the etiquette of conducting business in Europe and the States. Others say they notice the accent but they wouldn't necessarily qualify it as harsh. I say that I don't know what it is but I am terrified that someone will notice and fixate on it. Ha! I guess I am terrified of myself.

So, this is sort of a long and rambling story without much of a point to speak of. But I wanted to put it all out there and ask for your thoughts on Bulgarian accents but also on accents in more general terms. Do you have one? And, more importantly, what is your relationship to your accent? Love it? Hate it? Both?



  1. From my personal experience, when a Bulgarian has a strong accent in English, it stems from the pronounciation of "h" and "r", and may be why your friend's mentor said she sounded like a Russian spy...

  2. Kyle has a good point about intonation. Bulgarian intonation range is about twice as small as the one typical for English speakers. Also, apart from the vowel sounds, consonants are pronounced in different ways. Somebody mentioned "h", which is a good example. "T" and "d" are also another good example. I'm not going to go into details about the whole phonetic deal but the point is these are two different languages and it's quite natural for people to have some sort of an accent. I have one as well, I haven't really felt embarrassed about it though. Some people say it sounds near native, others say it sounds like a Germanic accent, I haven't really tried to analyze it.

    My husband, however, hates his accent, he thinks it's way too Eastern European. He doesn't focus on the fact how well he can actually say things in a language that he learned later in his life.

    Sometimes I wish I could be like some of those actors who can successfully imitate different accents, it makes life more interesting. It would be incredibly boring if everyone spoke in exactly the same way.

  3. I must confess I have the same problem since I live and study here in Germany, although my accent isn't so strong. It still makes me feel insecure and as you described: I hate the attention it brings as well.

    At the very beginning I had mostly contact with Bulgarians here and they all had that anti-german attitude (a.k.a "the stupid germans, they don't know how to live right, they're to strict and cold" and so on, the regular prejuduces) and so I also started to feel a little bit bad and weak regarding my ability and talent as a foreign student here. With my accent I didn't feel good enough and competitive.

    Now, 3 years later with my Bachelor-Certificate in hand, I know it's kinda stupid to feel bad about the accent- it's a part of who we are and it's ok, because we actually come from another country, it's a part of our biography and we shouldn't be ashamed of that. That doesn't mean of course that one doesn't need to improve his language skills and so.

    The learning I've made is that as long as you say something proper and interesting and important, it just doesn't matter if you say "r" like a russian spy :)

  4. Having spent quite a bit of time around Bulgarians, my impression is that Bulgarian sounds slightly "harsh" also when compared to other slavic languages I've heard (e.g. Croatian, Russian). Lots of consonants, 'heavy' syllables (with groups of consonants), emphasis, and intonation (which is rhythmic more so than melodic). It seemed to be in the beginning that my Bulgarian friends were always fighting amongst each other, when it fact they were just leading perfectly normal non-combative conversations. These characteristics often surface when speaking another language, but one either loves it or hates it, and I personally love the Bulgarian 'sound'. As for my own (Romanian) accent, I can't hear it even though I know it's there so it's never been an issue of concern :-)

  5. @anchett: It's very sad that so many Bulgarians act like that when they go abroad. Everyone is "so stupid", "so not cool", "so cold". If that were the case, how come those people built such a successful country? Why do you keep on living in that country? Why do you use its resources and opportunities if everything is so uncool? It just makes me sad how narrow minded Bulgarians can be.
    Good thing that you managed to leave your fears behind.

  6. I guess one never gets rid of their accent. After having spent 6 years in Paris I am completely fluent in French. One day, at the very end of my stay, I was waiting at a bus stop. A sweet old lady approached me and we had the following conversation:
    Sweet old lady (in FR): Excuse me, have you been waiting for the bus for a long time?
    Me: Oui.
    Sweet old lady: Oooooh, where do you come from?

    Dude! From a single "oui" she sussed out I was not French. What else can I say?

  7. I tell my own Bulgarian that she sounds like a Bond girl. So "Russian spy" is right on the money. ;)

    I love to hear accents of all kinds. I speak only English, so those who've mastered two or more languages have my respect.

    The lingering influences of your native tongues are interesting to me, and nothing to hide. ...unless you ARE a Russian spy, of course.

  8. My situation is bizarre. I seem to lack an accent, or more specifically, a southern accent. I've lived below the Mason-Dixon my entire life and yet I routinely am asked, "Where are you from?" I've had people guess that I'm European or Californian more times than I can tell you. So, it is my lack of having that twang and drawl that has been an issue for me. :)

  9. I live in more macho environment - my husband is in the US Army. I've notice how both the privates and the senior brass react when I open my mouth (the privates gaze the women anyways). I think they saw too many Rambo, Bond and tons of B-movies and I am pretty sure my accent gives them little dirty thoughts....

    Plus there was a Russian female physician on the post and she was overbooked. Everybody was talking how hot she is. I really don't know what to do about it, but meanwhile I don't care....:) I went to Asheville, NC and it was the same with rednecks (One of the reasons I never saw the Art Deco architecture, too many drinks). I guess it has do more with them, they never been abroad, never met foreigners and Eastern Europe sound so exotic...

    probably someday I can write funny book about it...:)

  10. An extremely interesting topic indeed. I've just moved to Sweden with my Swedsih boyfriend and I've just started my studies at the local university. I am the only foreigner in my class as it is not such a common thing to speak Swedish outside Sweden. I am embarassed because of my accent to that point that I still haven't said anything in a loud voice during a lecture. A funny thing is that my boyfriend says I actually don't have an accent but I don't speak any of the Swedish dialects either and this is the problem. Nobody can say where I come from and this leave them perplexed and staring every time I say something. They just can't place my way of speaking on their map of Sweden where everybody belongs to a district with a special pronunciation of words, intonation etc. As to the harshness, I think it comes from the falling intonation Bulgarians have. It slips into the conversation sometimes even if you have learned to imitate the local song-like intonation perfectly and leave people a little taken aback. But @anchett, I think I will try to stick to your opinion that it is more important what you actually say than how you say it. It will take some time though...

  11. I remember when I was first in Bulgaria visiting my husbands family. When they are all in a room talking the tone slowly creeps up to what I would call hostile. I asked Metodi, "What are you guys fighting about?!" He laughs and tells his family what I said and they all laugh. Bulgarians just love to out-shout each other apparently. From then on he'd periodically shout for everyone to lower their voices, they're giving his American wife a headache, lol.

    Metodi and I often have trouble understanding what each other mean by the tone of voice we use. He often doesn't get my sarcasm, and half the time I think he's angry with me when he isn't. But Metodi doesn't have the normal Bulgarian accent I noticed in most other Bulgarians I've met. You barely notice that at all, its the tone.

    As for Southern Americans. I can switch from my Kentucky accent to my Neutral Business accent at any moment. I don't use my 'Southern' accent unless I'm around Southerners that I'm trying to make feel more comfortable with me. AKA: Fixing my car, asking for directions, meeting friend's family.

    Amusingly enough I'd like to acquire a Bulgarian accent. Every time I'm practicing my Bulgarian words my husband tells me my "American" accent will always be obvious. :D

  12. I used to hate my accent, but now I've come to accept it since I know I'll probably never be able to lose it.

    One more thing. After coming back from the States after a year on an exchange program there, some of my friends told me that I spoke like a true American, ie without any accent. I didn't really believe it, but I guess I may really have been pretty close to losing my accent at that time. Now, 3 years after I moved to Germany, these same people say that I speak English with some sort of German, Dutch or unidentifiable Nordic accent. It may be so and it doesn't bother me, if it turns out to be true after all, but I find it peculiar how fast (or slow) the brain can adapt to different languages. Now I think of them more as melodies than anything else. The trick is to learn to sing them right.

  13. I personally have never felt embarrassed by my accent. Actually, it's been a bonus. In the States, it's cute to have an accent, unless it's Mexican, that is :(

    But even those who notice my accent have never said it sounds harsh or is like a Russian spy. They usually guess it's French, even though I don't even speak French. The only person who's guessed correctly was an American professor of Slavic languages, so he does not count :)

  14. I came to the States 12 years ago (I was 16 at the time), and for whatever strange reason I never had an accent, even though my English wasn't all that good. It created a lot of confusion and frustration, as there was no way to explain some of the basic cultural or linguistic mistakes I was making. No one would believe I was not Jersey born and bred. I wanted an accent soooo bad, but I couldn't fake one...
    Several people have pointed out, however, that my delivery is sometimes harsh or different than a native. So perhaps voice inflection is a big part of the "Russian Spy" thing.

  15. Hi Petya et al,
    I live in the Southern United States and my Bulgarian accent has been slowly transformed into somewhat of a Southern one. My coworkers and friends tell me I speak better English than they do.

    The only thing that bothers me is the random servers' reaction when I first open my mouth to order something at a restaurant - "I'd like water with lemon." - "Huh?!?"
    It's as if the hint of a non-local accent catches them so off guard that they can't even process the simple words.

  16. Funny how people commenting here are either embarrassed or not bothered by their accent. How about liking it or being proud of it? Have you noticed how French and Spanish speakers don't make the slightest effort to get rid of their strong accents? I actually asked one Argentinean once (who had lived in Britain longer than he had lived in Argentina) why the strong accent and he told me it makes him proud and he specifically tries to preserve it. Of course, an Argentinean accent is sexy, everybody knows it, but isn't it part of Bulgarian nihilism that people are embarrassed by their accent? I personally have an accent when I speak English; it is not exactly East European - rather, it just shows that I'm not a native speaker. I like it a lot. It may have been mere flattery but English speakers have told me that it is very sweet. I think it gives me some color and it is a part of my identity.

  17. S.
    Oh! I think you are right about the differences you've observed between Bulgarian's and other nationalities' relationship to our accents. I don't know if it's nihilism, though, I think it's an inferiority complex... or maybe both.

    Intellectually, I understand all you are saying. But my heart speaks otherwise. Although, I must admit, the more I lose my accent, the more I wish it was a bit stronger... it's the only piece of home that I always carry with me and never want to let it go.

  18. Dude, I live in BG and have an accent in Bulgarian :)))))))!!! From North Bulgaria that is.
    Countless times I've heard "remarks" about my accent but I kinda like it and don't want to lose it. I think accents add flavor to one's speech.

    Yeah, I do think it's a Bulgarian thing, our inferiority complex, the get-rid-of-the-village-in-you crap.

  19. When I was a little navy brat, I was always anxious about my accent. My entire family is from Tennessee, but from kindergarten to fifth grade, I lived in California, Connecticut, South Carolina and Washington state. Everyone in those places told me I sounded "soooo Southern," but at family reunions in TN, my relatives would tease me about talking like a "damn Yankee."

    I was reminded of those times a few years ago, when I was leaving TN to return to grad school in IN after a break. I was near Manchester, TN, a mere 30-45 minutes from my hometown. I was asked my a convenience store attendant, "You aren't from around here, are you?" Uh, actually....

    Many of my closest friends say my Southern accent comes out (a) when I'm talking to my family (b) when I've had a bit to drink and (c) when I say certain words like "lion/line" or "whale/well." I'm sure a linguist could tell me why these words in particular, but as for me, I really have no idea.

    In Russia, people rarely think I am a native English speaker. My Russian is funny enough not to sound even remotely native, but is perhaps better than what they seem to expect of Americans, Brits, etc. In short, in places as various as Moscow and Ulan-Ude, Russians tend to think I am Romanian. (I tend to take the whole business as a compliment, so it doesn't bother me so much!)

    In Brighton Beach, store clerks selling me the latest Zemfira album ask me what part of Russia my parents are from. When I tell them my parents aren't from Russia, they ask me where in Russia my grandparents are from. lol

    Unfortunately, I don't think these mistakes are likely to happen in the near future - I haven't really spoken Russian for two long years!!! :(

  20. Roshla:
    I LOVE Rousse accents!!!
    Btw, when Kyle first met Nicki (from Varna), he asked if he was Bulgarian... he could notice his Varna accent even in English. ;)))

  21. S.'s comment is so indicative of accent as a marker for cultural identity! I am not surprised at all that the examples (s)he gives of people being proud of their accents are Argentinian and French. We all know the French and Argentinian disdain for other cultures and yes, their pride of their identity, too.

    However, it's also telling that those examples are from a British context. I bet any Argentinian living in the US would not be as proud of his/her accent as they are in Britain because Spanish-based accents are not perceived as sexy in the US, as I said in my previous comment. On the contrary, it's a stigma.

    Personally, I am not proud of my accent just as I am not proud of my identity at the expense of others' identities, as I've said in my Bulgarian blog. Because if I am proud of my identity I also have to be ashamed of the negative connotations associated with it and I don't want to take that responsibility or merit. I believe every identity is equally valuable, interesting or sexy. Having an accent marks you as a foreigner and in certain contexts it can be a problem. Especially if you are typecast as a kind of foreigner which messes up with your other activities (like being perceived as a Russian spy).

  22. Hey Petya, re Bulgarian accent:
    I just spent 5 months (last fall) in Sofia. I also took a year of ESL/EFL training and spent one year teaching English in China. A favorite UT Austin teacher in language ed says it's impossible to rid yourself of an accent if your first language is different from the target language! However, there ARE proven techniques for accent reduction. A friend here specializes in that area. So . . . if you reallhy want to learn to talk like a news anchor, you could find such a specialist. But better--love yourself/love your accent! And know that others love your accent! If they don't, they are all the poorer for their lack of appreciation of variety!

  23. Oh, and to work through those German-Bulgarian conflicts, I suggest a warm-hearted (Bulgarian) film called "Blueberry Hill." It's about a Germanic tourist who meets the "real" Bulgarians when he gets lost (or does he?) in the Bulgarian countryside.

    The film and the character of Bulgarians portrayed in the film is generous, warm-hearted, charming, fun, humane.

    The film even contains something of what's discussed here as Bulgarian self-deprecation, but which is seen in the film as something to be celebrated with gusto--locating a fine and glorious humor in all things Bulgarian--including the upside-downness, reverse-mirror-world spoken of as a country of paradox--sometimes regretfull--by Bulgarians themselves about their own (lovely!) culture & country!

    Let's appreciate each other's languages AND countries!

  24. Btw in the last issue of Playboy American men pointed that Russian accent is the sexiest (according to a survey populated by them), so nothing bad with Russian spy accent:) I bet a lot of American find it sexy:)