Pardon my accent

GREETINGS gentle reader and a very warm welcome to 2015. “Gentle reader” always makes me think of Miss Manners, and as I’m starting out as a new columnist it seemed the best way to break the ice.

Who am I? Normally I go by my first initial, but if you have a need for a longer salutation, please feel free to use the nickname Travieso given to me by a former colleague.

In my youth – wonderful phrase that – in San Diego, California, my work at a travel insurance company had me hiring additional representatives to answer phone calls and respond to e-mail enquiries.

In response to our advertisement, a young lady came in.

During the interview, she disclosed how she was in the midst of completing her BA and needed a part-time job to help pay the bills.

Now, if I asked you to guess her nationality when I tell you her surname was Rodriguez, I’m betting France wouldn’t have been the first country to spring to mind. But French she was and decidedly so.

Ms Rodriguez was bright, articulate and very worried about speaking with customers on the phone because of her thick accent.

But here’s the thing: Americans love accents. We can and will listen for hours to foreigners talk about anything. And Frenchy, as she was to be known around the office, became one of our telephone operator stars. Previously tetchy folks would calm down under the influence of elegant English spoken with a beguiling French accent.

I would know just how much Americans love accents. I have one, too. Mine started out in another former British Colony – Nouvelle-Zélande, as they say in French. Though far from having the clipped vowel sound and elongated sounding “no” of my countrymen, my vocalisations were vastly shaped by one too many hours of BBC TV shows, most notably Are You Being Served? and EastEnders.

Marinade that base accent with about 15 years in Southern California and you have an idea of what I sound like today. Which makes ordering things in Malaysia a tad... complicated, shall we say?

It has happened on more than one occasion, so I’m sure it’s a reflection on me and my voice rather than any waiter or shopkeeper in Kuala Lumpur. I’ll order something from a menu, the waiter will smile and nod, and 10 minutes later a server will inevitably be back to verify what I asked for.

Later, when the server delivers what everyone else at the table had ordered, there’s inexplicably another smile and nod to me as a different waiter or restaurant manager comes over to have a word with me – just what exactly did I want?

So I open the menu and point at the item in question, only to find out that “very sorry” but the dish is now “finish already.”

Fast-food establishments are harder. After entering a McDonalds with every intention of enjoying a Filet-O-Fish, I am inescapably pipped at the post by my confusing accent.

To be fair, my order is placed by pronouncing “filet” with the hard New Zealand “t” at the end of the word. With non-comprehension clear on the cashier’s face, I switch to the French “ét” pronunciation (“a” sound, soft “t”) and receive a smile and a nod, but no actual entry in the register.

With a line growing behind me, I end up pointing to a six-piece chicken nugget meal – sans the complimentary sweet and sour sauce, as I (and the queue behind me) don’t have the wherewithal to attempt another request.

These days when I’m out, I just tell someone what I’d like to eat and have them order for me.

When I’m by myself, I do my best Jodie Foster impression from the movie Nell – I point, smile and nod at the item I’m hoping to get, hand over my money, and take whatever I eventually end up with.

To try and better myself in Malaysia, I searched for an app to overcome my problematic accent.

And yes, there is a Malay language app for the iPad. It’s one of those ubiquitous “freemium” apps where you can use the basic programme without a fee but you have to pay to upgrade to the full service.

What this boils down to is I can now say things like perpuskataan... sorry, perpustakaan, and also “I agree”, “Check, please” and “Can you give me a discount?”. Nothing too useful really, unless I have an overdue library book and I’m hoping to knock a little off the fine.

So now I know how Frenchy felt all those years ago.

In the ‘90s, the term “talking smack” had plenty of traction in the US. But to French ears it sounded a bit different, and around our office we began “talking snap” about people after hearing Frenchy admonish a co-worker for “talking snap” about her.

Oh, and I just found out that some of my local friends have been letting me mispronounce words such as “batik”, which I’m told sounds like I’m asking for papaya – and I hate papaya. Why?

Because they think it’s cute how it sounds with my accent.

In any event, I think this year I’ll resolve to be less naughty. Well, perhaps just a little bit less – everything in moderation after all.

> D.L. Philips hails from Australasia and finished schooling in sunny Southern California. Sometimes Pokemon-trainer and all-times traveller, he’s seen a fair amount of the globe whilst being keen to see even more.

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