Russian spies' accents puzzles

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In the July 12 & 19 issue of The New Yorker, there’s a nice little piece by Ben McGrath called “Spy vs. Spy: Say What?” that starts out, “Count linguists and phonologists among those bewildered by last week’s Russian spying scandal, in which the F.B.I. arrested a network of presumed Muscovite spooks who appeared to be living ordinary American lives, gardening and Facebooking and selling real estate under assumed identities.” (Never mind the problematic presupposition signaled by the conjunction ‘linguists and phonologists’.) Only an abstract of the article is in the accessible online issue, here. For the full article you need hard copy or a subscription to the digital online version.

The linguistic issue is that one of the spies explained her accent by saying she was Belgian, and another by declaring herself to be Québécois. Maria Gouskova, a UMass Ph.D. now an assistant professor at NYU and a specialist in Russian phonology, gets extensively quoted and does the profession proud, including showing that linguists and phonologists can have a sense of humor; and Ben McGrath seems to have done a fine job of writing it up, also with good quotes from Stephanie Harves and Joshua Fishman.

Gouskova and Harves briefly describe some differences between a Russian accent and French Canadian, Flemish and Walloon accents, and were surprised at the choices of ‘cover’ identities. Fishman suggested that the choices worked all right because (a) French-related accents are often perceived in the West as “high-status” and “acceptable”, Slavic ones as more suspicious, and (b) Americans don’t actually know how to place accents. “Being a spy, all you have to do is count on American ignorance”, Fishman said. Many Americans don’t even know what the native languages of Belgians are, let alone be able to recognize accents of Belgians speaking English. So if you have an unrecognized accent, and you declare yourself Belgian, you may well get away with it among most Americans, and you'll be regarded with less suspicion than if you declare yourself Russian or anything else Slavic.

I like the last paragraph and will quote it in full.

Gouskova, who was born in Moscow but has lived in the United States for almost seventeen years, said she is sometimes confused for a native Dutch speaker. “Once, I convinced somebody I was from Antarctica and got away with it for two weeks,” she said. “This was in the Midwest, and she was pretty naïve. I was an undergraduate, and my accent was a little stronger than it is now. I told her my parents were scientists, and my dad had this big beard because it was so cold. But then I started feeling sorry for her. I said, ‘I’m not really from Antarctica. Nobody lives there permanently. I’m from Russia.’ She took it well.”



90 Comments

  1. Ginger Yellow said,

    July 8, 2010 @ 10:03 am

    That all make sense to me. The Quebecois are widely considered (outside Quebec, of course) to have a "weird" accent, even if few people not in regular contact with it could really place it.

    The Dutch/Russian confusion seems a bit odd though.

  2. S Larouche said,

    July 8, 2010 @ 10:24 am

    As a Quebecer whose first language is French, I can confirm Americans are extremely bad at identifying accents. Most Americans believe I am either German or Swede (presumably because I am tall, have fair hair, and blue eyes). Sometimes, American cannot even distinguish my accent from that of other Americans. I live in the Southeast and was asked once: "You have a strange accent, are you from Boston?"

  3. Chris said,

    July 8, 2010 @ 10:38 am

    I've noticed my fine American brothers and sisters have a tendency to assume all unknown accents are "French." If Catherine Tate is correct, Brits ain't much better, hehe.

  4. language hat said,

    July 8, 2010 @ 10:42 am

    Yes, I don't find the cover stories "bewildering" at all. How anyone could think Americans might be able to say "You're not Québécois/Belgian! I can tell by your accent!" is beyond me. (N.b.: I love my fellow Americans to pieces, but linguistic sophistication is not one of their salient attributes.)

  5. jfruh said,

    July 8, 2010 @ 10:44 am

    This reminds me of some of the various contortions 80s/90s Jean Claude Van Damme movies went through to explain away his accent (apparently just being a Francophone Belgian wasn't tough enough for an action hero). In one film, he was supposed to be a Cajun; in another, he was an American who "picked up an accent" after spending some years in the French Foreign Legion.

  6. mfahie said,

    July 8, 2010 @ 10:49 am

    This is slightly off-topic, but tangential. I'm an anglophone, french-speaking Canadian who has spent many years living in Quebec and New York City. I obviously have no problem differentiating a Quebecois accent in english from a French one, but several times I've heard an Israeli speaking english and responded to them in french, at which point I got a blank stare. Somehow to my ear, the Israeli accent in english is almost identical to the Quebecois.

    Any linguists with theories why this might be so? Or maybe it's just me!

  7. JS Bangs said,

    July 8, 2010 @ 11:01 am

    To extend on what Language Hat said, while I can tell a French accent from a Russian one, I doubt that I would seize on that to the point of doubting their story. It's awfully rude to tell your neighbor that they're lying because of their accent.

    Furthermore, there's a lot of variation in the way that foreign accents are acquired and develop, especially after years of immersion in the target language. My Romanian wife doesn't have an accent that I would readily place as such, mostly because she's acquired a native pronunciation of [θ ð ɹ], and her accent is mostly identifiable by some mild troubles with the tense/lax distinction in vowels. But of course tense/lax troubles are very common for people from languages without that contrast, and she can (and has) passed herself off as a native speaker of Italian and Spanish without any trouble.

  8. Neal Goldfarb said,

    July 8, 2010 @ 11:05 am

    French-related accents are often perceived in the West as “high-status” and “acceptable”

    This, of course, explains why Beldar and Prymaat always said they were from France.

  9. George said,

    July 8, 2010 @ 11:10 am

    @mfahie

    "Somehow to my ear, the Israeli accent in english is almost identical to the Quebecois."

    Final syllable stress?

  10. Barbara Partee said,

    July 8, 2010 @ 11:17 am

    And on the other hand, what a little linguistics and more exposure to other languages will do — I remember my surprise and delight at happening upon a radio program in Switzerland with a group of 4 males saying the Rosary together in Latin, and realizing that I could clearly identify a Dutchman, an Italian, a Frenchman, and an American from their accents in Latin. I'm no Henry Higgins, but at some point you realize you've just absorbed some things — I knew each of those languages to some extent, but hadn't realized it would carry over to recognizing their never-heard-before accents in Latin!

  11. Ginger Yellow said,

    July 8, 2010 @ 11:33 am

    "It's awfully rude to tell your neighbor that they're lying because of their accent."

    Maybe, but it's not so rude to say something along the lines of: "That's funny, you sound more Russian. Are your parents from Russia?"

    Or maybe it's just me. I work with so many people of mixed origin, for want of a better phrase, that I'm constantly talking about this sort of thing. For that matter, my own accent sounds nothing like that of my birthplace, while my my father and his three surviving siblings all have totally different accents (mid-West, Kiwi, mid-Atlantic and slightly German).

  12. kip said,

    July 8, 2010 @ 11:34 am

    But are Americans any worse at placing accents than non-Americans?

  13. Barbara Partee said,

    July 8, 2010 @ 11:41 am

    @kip — that's a good question. I think the answer is yes but I don't have data. I think Europeans are much better because they're exposed to other languages and other accents much more regularly. I certainly got better after more exposure, which I hadn't gotten until I got a more international life (both through travel and from colleagues), but I had become a linguist by then, so I don't know for sure whether exposure alone is enough. My conjecture is that Europeans can pick up on a German or Italian or French accent much as Americans can pick up on a Boston or New York or southern accent. But whether Europeans are any better than Americans at distinguishing a Quebecois from a Russian accent I don't know.

  14. vanya said,

    July 8, 2010 @ 11:43 am

    Funny, 50-60 years ago the French Canadian accent was much better known, at least in the Northeastern US. Jacques the lumberjack was a standard figure of fun. Even today I don't think a Russian spy could get away with saying they were from Montreal in most of New Hampshire or Maine, especially one who adopted such an Anglo name. I'm a little surprised that people in Cambridge, MA are so poorly versed in Quebec culture.

  15. richard howland-bolton said,

    July 8, 2010 @ 11:44 am

    Not surprising to me at all, since so many Americans mistake my British SRP for Australian (wot a waste of all those skool fees :-) )

  16. Jon said,

    July 8, 2010 @ 11:49 am

    Hoping to get away with a dodgy accent for years seems very risky. Even if 99% of Americans suspect nothing, you are bound to come across someone with wider knowledge sometime.

    I'm no linguist, but I can generally tell the nationality of most Western Europeans from their accent in English. That comes from scientifiic contacts over decades. I don't analyse an accent, I just think "That sounds like Benny/Hans/Christer/…".

    I wonder if one of these spies was first caught out by someone thinking "That's odd. He says he's Belgian, but he sounds just like Uncle Boris".

  17. HP said,

    July 8, 2010 @ 11:50 am

    What I don't understand is why the spies didn't simply say they were from Russia. Russian immigration to the US has exploded since 1989, and I count Russians living in the US among my friends, acquaintances, and colleagues. There's nothing particularly notable or suspicious about encountering Russians in the US in 2010.

    I guess I don't understand espionage, because I would think "I'm Russian" would be a better cover story for a Russian spy than "I'm Quebecois." Easier to maintain, too.

  18. Jean-Sébastien Girard said,

    July 8, 2010 @ 12:15 pm

    There is at least on tell-tale sign to distinguish European and Quebec French speakers of English: the European will say /z/ for the interdental fricative, but the Quebecers will say /d/.

    The /z/ pronunciation is pretty stereotypical in fact of French speakers, and even in French it's used for humour, for example in Asterix in Brittain, the French name of Mykingdomforanos is Zebigbos (i.e. "the big boss"). Using "ze" as an article for humorous emphasis in pretty common in France, particularly for English words.

  19. HW said,

    July 8, 2010 @ 12:18 pm

    @richard

    That's okay, as an Australian I'm often accused of being British. Or, like @S Larouche, of being from Boston.

    The other possibility is that they actually did put on Belgian accents. As I understand it their purpose was to hobnob with State Department officials and other Washington elites, so they'd have to expect to eventually run into someone who knows a bit more about accents than your average Wal-Mart employee. But a reasonable fake Belgian accent can be good enough to fool almost anyone who isn't Belgian, whereas a fake American accent would be very hard to maintain among Americans.

  20. Leo said,

    July 8, 2010 @ 12:39 pm

    Apparently the "Belgian" ruse worked. But a priori, I would have suggested the following cover story: "My parents were diplomats who travelled around the world, so I grew up in various places". Many such people really exist, and their English-language accents vary widely for obvious reasons, so with that story you could pretty much get away with any accent you like! Though I guess you would need a quick wit and an imagination to keep the story going in the line of questioning.

    HP: "I guess I don't understand espionage, because I would think "I'm Russian" would be a better cover story for a Russian spy than "I'm Quebecois." Yes, it probably would – but I suspect that some people become spies precisely because they enjoy playing these rather silly games. Telling the truth would be too dull.

  21. mpg said,

    July 8, 2010 @ 12:47 pm

    (Am I the only one who got caught by the crash blossom "Russian spies accents puzzles"? Yes, the possessive apostrophe voids it, but at a first glance in my iPhone browser I didn't see it.)

    ((On second thought, this might have been an intentional blossom on the authors part.))

    -mpg

  22. axl said,

    July 8, 2010 @ 12:53 pm

    Accepting whatever else about the difficulty Americans have in identifying accents, how one can live for years in Cambridge, MA, hang out with lots of other Canadians and international Kennedy School types, and avoid questions about one's accent is beyond me. Identifying yourself as Quebecois, as opposed to Quebecoise, would be one small tell.

    @mfahie – I have a similar background to you, and have had similar false intuitions about Israeli-English, especially when catching it only in the distance or in ambient noise (as Frostian "sentence sounds", maybe). Could be a question of cadence, plus a few similar phones.

  23. z said,

    July 8, 2010 @ 12:54 pm

    "French-related accents are often perceived in the West as “high-status” and “acceptable”, Slavic ones as more suspicious"

    Depending how far west you go – in the San Francisco Bay Area, for instance, there are pleeeenty of Russian immigrants, so that to suspect everyone (or anyone) for having a Russian accent would simply take too much energy and be a little pointless. So I definitely agree with HP. (Although it could easily vary by region – I know that in a lot of the Midwest there are much fewer Russians, and Cold War stereotypes may be hanging on somewhat more in those areas.)

  24. z said,

    July 8, 2010 @ 12:57 pm

    Silly me just realized that "the West" probably meant, like, Europe and the US, and not the latter's west coast. I think my misconception happened because I would've considered Slavic countries part of the West?

  25. Philip said,

    July 8, 2010 @ 1:09 pm

    @kip: I speak good Spanish, but it's certainly not without an American English accent and some other features from Mexican Spanish.

    In Venezuela, a storekeeper asked me if I were French. When I asked why he'd think so, he responded, "Because you buy a lot of French bread."

  26. Dan Holden said,

    July 8, 2010 @ 1:20 pm

    I am from Kansas City, and therefore too naive to understand this blog.

  27. Brett R said,

    July 8, 2010 @ 1:24 pm

    Barbara, did the let alone construction up there give you pause when you were writing it?

  28. Maria Gouskova said,

    July 8, 2010 @ 1:50 pm

    Dan Holden: I am from Kansas City, and therefore too naive to understand this blog.

    I suppose I should explain the Midwest comment… Perhaps it is hard to appreciate for an American native, but I have lived in the American Midwest and in the Northeast, and I can attest that the foreigner experience is quite different in the two areas. In the Northeast, I usually do not get any comments about my accent at all, and when somebody does ask what kind of accent I have, my response is met with an utter lack of interest and a change of topic.

    In the Midwest, on the other hand, I would often hear things like this:
    "Oh, my sister's boyfriend's roommate is Ukrainian! Or maybe Lithuanian, I am not sure."
    "Really? What's it like, being from Russia?"
    "Really? But your English is so good!"

    After a while, Antarctica seems like a better response. Until, that is, somebody actually takes your word for it.

  29. The Ridger said,

    July 8, 2010 @ 1:55 pm

    They should have said they were "of course Norveggians".

  30. Barbara Partee said,

    July 8, 2010 @ 2:08 pm

    @mpg — thanks, I was starting to think noone had noticed my crash blossom!
    @z — Aha, right, what "the West" is is very context-dependent. I'm accustomed to speaking from a context of Russia and Eastern Europe, and then the West is indeed North America plus Western Europe (often plus Japan and Korea, if the discussion is about linguistic theories – ;-) ) Reminds me of the definition of "Yankee": in most of the world, Yankee means an American (citizen of US); in the US, a Yankee is a northerner, north of the Mason-Dixon line; north of the Mason-Dixon line, a Yankee is a New Englander; in New England a Yankee is a Vermonter; in Vermont, a Yankee is someone who eats pie for breakfast. [I have no idea where that's from. I've known it for years.]
    @Brett R — No, that use of "let alone" comes naturally to me. What might I have noticed that might have given me pause?

  31. John Lawler said,

    July 8, 2010 @ 2:29 pm

    @Barbara, Brett R –
    >Many Americans don’t even know what the native languages of
    >Belgians are, let alone be able to recognize accents of Belgians
    >speaking English.

    Zwicky's Law applies here, I think.
    By the time one gets to be able to, one has forgotten that the verb that it's a conjoined DO of is know, which doesn't take a to-less infinitive complement, and that the first conjunct is what the native languages of Belgians are, an embedded question complement, and not a to-less infinitive.

    I grant you, it got by me, too, but then I have a very cooperative parser.

  32. mollymooly said,

    July 8, 2010 @ 2:34 pm

    @jfruh: that's one of many reasons I've always had more respect for Van Damme than Schwarzenegger. Wait, I mean less respect.

  33. blahedo said,

    July 8, 2010 @ 2:35 pm

    From the OP: "Many Americans don’t even know what the native languages of Belgians are, let alone be able to recognize accents of Belgians speaking English."

    I didn't even notice until @Brett R pointed it out, but I would have said that I expected "let alone" to be basically a conjunction, that had to combine like constituents. But:

    * "don't even know what … " (or just "know what …")

    * "be able to …"

    That looks like a seriously WTF coordination, because there's no simple change to make those two actually conjoinable; I guess the simplest such change would be to replace "be able" with "have the ability", but to really make the sentence sound right to my ear I'd have to rewrite more significantly. Probably something like: "Many Americans aren't even able to identify the native languages of Belgians, let alone recognize accents of Belgians speaking English."

    But for all that, the sentence didn't even give me the briefest pause on first reading. And evidently it sounded ok to Barbara even on a re-read, although now I'm curious if she would stand by the construction or disown it.

  34. m said,

    July 8, 2010 @ 2:48 pm

    What about the Coneheads on Saturday Night Live? They always said "We are from France." And it always worked. Despite the heads.

  35. TonyK said,

    July 8, 2010 @ 2:59 pm

    Hang on a second — how could these cover stories possibly succeed? If I tell you I'm from Belgium, and you know somebody else from Belgium, you will be predisposed to introduce us to each other at the earliest opportunity. And then my cover is blown, right? I don't get it. Is somebody being economical with the truth here?

  36. groki said,

    July 8, 2010 @ 3:09 pm

    blahedo- "there's no simple change to make those two actually conjoinable"

    "…let alone how to…" works for me.

    delightful blog btw.

  37. Barbara Partee said,

    July 8, 2010 @ 3:09 pm

    @John, @blahedo (and @brett again) – Oh, I replied too quickly before and didn't really reread. (After all, the question had been whether it had given me pause; I could say without looking back that it hadn't. But I should have reread rather than just ask what there was about it that might give one pause.) I agree with blahedo. It wasn't a conjoined object of 'know', it was a conjoined VP conjoined with the 'know' phrase, and I realize now that I did have an almost subliminal twinge as I tried to figure out what ending to put on "be" in "be able to". So what I was letting get through was in effect "don't know and don't be able to", which is indeed out for me, though not so far out to slow me down especially as semi-disguised in the 'let alone' construction. So I wrote it without noticing, I would probably read it without noticing, but on reflection I agree exactly with blahedo.

  38. Barbara Partee said,

    July 8, 2010 @ 3:16 pm

    @m — Neal Goldfarb beat you to the conehead reference — he has a link in his comment above to some interesting reading about them.
    @TonyK — I think we're learning something about subcultures from this episode. They shouldn't try such a thing in a linguistics department or probably in any internationally-oriented and multicultural community (e.g probably anywhere within academia). But if it's like the suburbs I grew up in, here and there there were people who had come from other countries, but that was that, that was just their history, and we wouldn't have known other people from those countries to introduce them to or even thought of such an idea. I am inclined to believe Joshua Fishman about general American ignorance about accents, and I don't think he was joking.

  39. groki said,

    July 8, 2010 @ 3:52 pm

    oops. sorry blahedo, i misunderstood your "those two". thanks Barbara for clarifying.

  40. Bill Walderman said,

    July 8, 2010 @ 4:10 pm

    In my experience, the hard (unpalatalized) "l" frequently betrays native speakers of Russian when they speak English (although other eastern European languages have a similar sound). Also, native speakers of Russian sometimes have trouble with English articles in ways that speakers of western European languages don't (just as native speakers of English and probably other western European languages have trouble with Russian verbal aspects).

  41. Mr Punch said,

    July 8, 2010 @ 4:27 pm

    @mfahle (French/Israeli) – maybe fricatives?

    I agree with Bill — it's the articles (or lack thereof) that most obviously identify Russians speaking English. The spies, or some of them, had assumed Canadian identities, and had accents, so the Quebecois thing makes sense.

    Has anybody but a spy ever pretended to be Belgian?

  42. Barbara Partee said,

    July 8, 2010 @ 4:41 pm

    I disagree with @Bill and @Mr Punch about the articles; on the one hand, sure, speakers of article-less languages are often identifiable as such when speaking English, but since the majority of the world's languages lack articles, that doesn't pick them out as Russian in particular. To me it's largely phonology — distinctive vowel qualities, distinctive 'filler-noises' (where we say 'uh'), a whole cluster of things I can't pinpoint all of (any more than I can pinpoint how I identify Mozart or the Beatles), and a few syntactic things like lack of articles and putting complex modifiers in front of the noun.
    But maybe Bill and Mr Punch are right if we just take the field of possibilities as the western European languages plus Russian. But for instance, Czech equally lacks articles but its phonology is really different — I think anyone who is actually familiar with both languages would distinguish between Czech and Russian accents in a second. (This all depends heavily on the choice space: I certainly couldn't distinguish Czech and Slovak accents speaking English, don't even know if I would distinguish Czech and Polish accents, and for sure not among different Slavic language accents if I don't know the languages at all. But almost all the Slavic languages lack articles, as do most of the world's languages.

  43. J.H. said,

    July 8, 2010 @ 5:00 pm

    I was once eating dinner with my French class and teacher (who is Canadian, but his mother's from France, so he speaks French as if he is as well). The waiter came over to ask about drinks. I immediately recognized his accent as Scottish and so was quite shocked when my teacher asked, "Vous parlez français ?" The waiter, slightly embarrassed, replied, "Euh, un peu…"

    It might just be a North American thing…

  44. Ginger Yellow said,

    July 8, 2010 @ 5:07 pm

    on the one hand, sure, speakers of article-less languages are often identifiable as such when speaking English, but since the majority of the world's languages lack articles, that doesn't pick them out as Russian in particular.

    It does if they're claiming to be Belgian.

  45. language hat said,

    July 8, 2010 @ 6:17 pm

    Many such people really exist

    *raises hand*

  46. Bill Walderman said,

    July 8, 2010 @ 7:15 pm

    @ Barbara: I enitrely agree with you that difficulty with English articles is not limited to Russian speakers–with a Russian speaker the first thing I tend to notice is the Russian pronunciation of unpalatalized /l/ and then various other factors crop up that contribute to the identification, the most prominent after the hard /l/ pronunciation being (for me) the difficulty with articles. But I've been deceived on occasion. I once had a conversation with a cab driver in Boston who I thought was a native speaker of Russian but who turned out to be a native speaker of Lak, a language spoken in Daghestan (within the Russian orbit), although he was probably fluent in Russian, too.

  47. Brett said,

    July 8, 2010 @ 7:15 pm

    I agree with Leo as to why they didn't just admit they were Russian. I talked to a Russian colleague about these spies, and he told me that these deep cover agents were of very high standing and much respected in a large and influential sector of Soviet society. (Actually, he pointed out that the spies themselves—"illegals," the New York Times said they were called in its discussion of this point—probably didn't actually enjoy the high status. Most of them remained anonymous, even after they returned to Russia, but there were a few famous examples and some well-known fictional ones, who were minor folk heroes.) The depth of the cover and the total devotion to their cover story were important parts of this mythology. It would be less impressive for the spies to claim simply to be Russian immigrants. Even if their superiors would allow such a mundane cover story, the kind of people who would volunteer for this work, with its odd combination of anonymity and glamor, would likely want cover stories that placed them at the greatest possible distance from anything Russian. While pretending to be from Brussels or Montreal might not the best was of preserving their cover, nothing about this operation suggests that the FSB's decisions were made using anything resembling an objecting evaluation of what would be best for intelligence gathering.

  48. Bryn LaFollette said,

    July 8, 2010 @ 7:51 pm

    @mfahie and axl

    Regarding the Israeli-Hebrew/Francophone confusion, I don't think you're alone. I've noticed the similarity myself, and have done some thinking about what seemed to account for it. My opinion (as one with a Linguistics degree, a Francophone wife and several Israeli friends and acquaintances) is that it seems to have a lot to do with the rhotic uvular approximants (the 'r' sounds) in both languages, primarily, and then secondarily the various similar phonetic strategies used by speakers of both Isreali Hebrew and French for pronouncing other phonemes in English which don't exist in those languages.

  49. Peter said,

    July 8, 2010 @ 9:07 pm

    At least with van Damme they tried to explain his accent. Sean Connery is one whose accent has often bugged me, especially in one of the Bond films where Bond supposedly successfully passed himself off as Japanese even though the actor couldn't even successfully pass himself off as English.

  50. Skullturf Q. Beavispants said,

    July 8, 2010 @ 9:32 pm

    Even as a kid, it bugged me a bit when Schwarzenegger with his thick Austrian accent played characters with last names like "Richards" and "Quaid" and "Kimball".

  51. DRK said,

    July 8, 2010 @ 11:02 pm

    Except for the movie "In Bruges", which of course mostly has Irish accents, I've never even knowingly heard a Belgian accent. (I am American). I've heard Russian ones, but if someone with a Russian accent identified himself as Belgian, I'd probably just think, oh, how funny, that sounds more like an Eastern European accent than I would have thought. (then, vaguely, I'd think, "isn't Flemish Germanic?.. maybe…"). Most people aren't very sophisticated about accents and tend to take what people say about themselves at face value, is the point I'm making.

    To judge by Agatha Christie, Britons aren't very knowledgeable about Belgians either. Or they didn't used to be. She admitted in her autobiography that she knew zip about Belgians, which is why Hercule Poirot, ostensibly Belgian, is so very French.

  52. Phaedrus said,

    July 9, 2010 @ 2:49 am

    I have lived in Europe for four years. I am a native speaker of American English, I was born in New York I went to school in Ohio and then lived in Philadelphia for 18 years.
    I seldom meet a non-native speaker, European or otherwise, who is able to immediately tell which continent I am from, unless they actually have experience living in the United States. It doesn't matter how good their English is. The determining factor is their experience with the language in context.
    Because I live in Germany I can identify some accents, e.g. Bavarian, Russian, Swabian, French. But I would be hard pressed to distinguish the exact country of origin or regional accent without repeated exposure, and it helps to have been to that region or country. Most of the time I can tell Brazilian Portuguese from European Portuguese, and a Mexican from a Spaniard, but I can't necessarily tell a Pole from a Latvian. Or a Cantonese English or German accent from Mandarin.
    So many of these distinctions rely on cultural clues and subtleties in pronunciation that are well beyond people with no phonology skills, that it is unrealistic to expect individuals who lack either the experience or the expertise in languages to know the difference between foreign accents.

  53. Roger said,

    July 9, 2010 @ 3:31 am

    I haven't followed this spy story in great detail, but I know that e.g. many Russian diplomats speak their foreign languages extremely well, tone-perfect (don't know why Putin didn't manage with his unimpressive German). I used to know the interpreter at the Soviet embassy in Benin, and his French was so perfect, so fluent, including those typical French gestures, filler words (eh ben bon, etc.), and everything else that it was hard to believe he wasn't French. This guy just exuded Frenchness. Sometimes foreigners overdo it when they've reached that level where they no longer have an accent and make no grammatical mistakes, but maybe overuse idioms and complicated syntactical constructions. But these spies still had strange accents that they tried to pass off as 'Belgian' or 'Quebecoise'?

  54. Jeremy said,

    July 9, 2010 @ 6:05 am

    I know Americans, especially Midwesterners, get a bad rap for being culturally ignorant. Partly it's gotta be due to living in a giant country with lots of interesting places to go to, and partly due to poor foreign language education. But c'mon, this is just confirmation bias. I imagine if you go to any area in any country where people don't often meet recently-arrived foreigners you'd find the same ignorance.

    I've convinced Moroccans and Vietnamese that I'm Spanish (I do speak it, though not native-level), Japanese that I'm Australian, Scottish, French, German, African (blond, blue-eyed white guy here), Spanish, and a whole host of other nationalities. I've also been pegged as Icelandic or German by Spaniards according to my accent in that language.

    But the Antarctic bit was pretty good. Once I figure out how to say it in Japanese, I'm using that from now on.

  55. Leo said,

    July 9, 2010 @ 7:14 am

    Ignorance doesn't know borders. After Germany beat England in the Euro 96 football tournament, a Russian was stabbed in Manchester because somebody thought he was German.

  56. Leo said,

    July 9, 2010 @ 7:17 am

    Correction – Sussex, not Manchester

  57. Laura said,

    July 9, 2010 @ 7:24 am

    Reminds me a bit of the Hartlepool monkey. A French ship wrecked off the coast near Hartlepool during the Napoleonic wars and the only survivor was a monkey who washed ashore dressed in a French army uniform (presumably because he looked so adorable) and the locals assumed he must be a Frenchman because he talked like they assumed French people talk, and hanged him as such. It's not a true story but has become folklore and the Hartlepudlians are quite proud of it – their football mascot is a monkey.

  58. Arthur said,

    July 9, 2010 @ 8:23 am

    The implications of having a "Belgian" accent depends on the context…

    I am English and speak moderate conversational French (and some Swahili from growing up in Kenya, but that's a separate story). I helped a French couple whose car had broken down by a roadside in Africa, and tried out my rusty French on them. At the end of the conversation they said "you speak excellent French" – at which I felt somewhat proud, until they added "Are you Belgian?".

    It was well meant – and I suppose it was a minor triumph to have disguised my English roots – but it still felt double-edged

  59. Aaron Davies said,

    July 9, 2010 @ 8:27 am

    @Peter: speaking as someone who's read all the (fleming) books, bond's not actually english–he's half scottish, half swiss, and did a fair bit of growing up on the continent. what RP he has probably came from his truncated Eton education, but he went from there to Fettes College, Edinburgh. all in all i find "mostly english, but with scottish poking through from time to time" a much more reasonable accent for bond than "perfect RP under all circumstances".

  60. Barbara Partee said,

    July 9, 2010 @ 8:37 am

    By the way, random non-academic Russians (neighbors, shopkeepers, fellow passengers on the train or metro) aren't any better at recognizing an American accent — I very frequently get asked if I'm from "Pribaltika", meaning Latvia, Lithuania, or Estonia. I take it as a compliment to my Russian — it basically suggests that I'm foreign but not very, I think. (Northern rather than southern probably because I'm relatively fair-skinned.)

  61. David Waugh said,

    July 9, 2010 @ 9:54 am

    I know two Scotsmen who have told me separately that they have been complimented by Americans for their command of English. The KGB folk could have said they were Scottish.

  62. David Waugh said,

    July 9, 2010 @ 9:57 am

    Fairness obliges me to recird something I've just remembered; that my sister (who has a Scottish accent) was mistaken for French when she was in London.

  63. tablogloid said,

    July 9, 2010 @ 10:29 am

    In reference to Sean Connery, Peter said said, "the actor couldn't even successfully pass himself off as English."

    Perhaps that is because Connery is a Scot.

  64. Ran Ari-Gur said,

    July 9, 2010 @ 11:30 am

    @tablogloid: No, plenty of Scottish people can fake an English accent when they need to. (But as Aaron Davies says above, it's debatable whether Connery should have.)

  65. wally said,

    July 9, 2010 @ 12:04 pm

    So, is it rude to ask someone with an accent where they are from?

    I am always interested. And being the type of person who reads language log, I actually care if they are Belgian or French. But especially if the accent is not very strong, I am often hesitant to ask.

  66. Leo said,

    July 9, 2010 @ 12:24 pm

    Wally – yes, I am often hesitant too. I think there's a good reason for it – when people (and not only spies!) are trying to function in a foreign language, it can be distracting (or insulting) to be constantly reminded of the native language they are trying NOT to speak.

    One approach is to ask instead "How many languages do you speak?", or something like that. The advantage of that question is that it emphasizes the other person's skills. Of course it doesn't always work smoothly. Recently I asked a new colleague what language she had just been speaking on the phone – she said Russian, so I assumed she was Russian. I only found out later by accident that she was from Ukraine.

  67. Barbara Partee said,

    July 9, 2010 @ 12:25 pm

    @Wally — Same with me. I think there's not a single answer to that question. If I don't see any obvious reason why it might be considered rude in the given context, and I'm curious, I will just try to phrase the question politely — e.g. "If you don't mind my asking, I'm curious about where you're from" or something like that. But I wouldn't ask if I'm in a context where I think the answer is going to be connected with expected discrimination and where it's therefore quite possibly an unwelcome question, unless it's equally clear in context that I'm not in the category of 'discriminators'. E.g. in Russia, where there's a lot of discrimination against people perceived to be likely from the Caucasus (especially Chechens but also Georgians and many other 'southerners'), I won't ask about it in a random context, but in our local complex of fruit and vegetable kiosks, where they all sort of know me as "their American" (I've never seen another in this neighborhood) and where the best fruits and vegetables come from the south, I can ask and find out whether they are Uzbek or Tadzhik or whatever and we trade stories about being non-Russian in Russia.

  68. Arthur said,

    July 9, 2010 @ 12:25 pm

    I don't think it's rude to ask. (in my English-Belgian example – as with the Baltic-States / Russian example above – I also took it as a compliment on the lines of "not native but close")

    I think it can be asked well and badly though. Like asking where someone is from / grew up – asked insensitively (in the UK at least) it can come across with strong "Little Englander" overtones, or worse.

  69. Barbara Partee said,

    July 9, 2010 @ 12:28 pm

    @Maria Gouskova — Are you in e-mail contact with the writer of the piece, Ben McGrath? He might like to know about this discussion!

  70. Maria Gouskova said,

    July 9, 2010 @ 1:08 pm

    Barbara–I'll let Ben know.

    I agree that Americans are no worse at identifying foreign accents than anyone else. The key to identifying an accent is familiarity with it. I flatter myself that I can always spot a Russian, for example, and I am pretty good at recognizing Hungarian, Czech, Polish, and Slovak accents (though I might not be able to tell a Czech accent from a Slovak one).

    One of the few challenges of being a phonologist is that people often assume that you will be able to identify foreign and regional accents better than a fictional FBI forensic linguist on TV. The truth is that when an accent is sufficiently subtle, it may not share very many similarities to the speaker's native language. Consonants change, vowels change, and the timing between them changes over time. Even your native language phonetics change subtly after living abroad too long–this has been demonstrated in Carol Fowler's lab.

    So any speculation about these alleged Russian spies' accents and their dead giveaway velarized liquids is not really appropriate. They probably do not sound like your typical Hollywood cabaret Russian accent.

  71. Andrew (not the same one) said,

    July 9, 2010 @ 2:22 pm

    It is not only in James Bond, however, that Sean Connery fails to disguise his Scots accent. In Highlander he plays a Spaniard with a Scots accent, while Christopher Lambert plays a Scot with a French accent.

  72. Tadeusz said,

    July 9, 2010 @ 4:36 pm

    I think that there are advantages of being recognized as a foreigner, and the "spies" could capitalize on that. For example, people tend to be more helpful and they can forgive foreigners a lot of blunders, linguistic or any other ones. And for me it is obvious that it is better to be associated with a culture that has generally positive associations. I am not so sure that Russian culture, and language, has only good associations for an American.
    I must say that so far I have not had any trouble with identification of Russian accents in various languages. For your information, I am a native speaker of Polish, and speak several other languages, including Russia. I understand most Slavic languages. While Maria Gouskova is certainly right about the subtlety of foreign accents, my impression is that Russian speakers's vowels are usually far more close than in the respective foreign language. This close pronunciation can be also heard in dialect speakers from eastern Poland, under influence of East Slavic languages. I also knew a British speaker who spoke Russian with native-like fluency; he spoke also Polish — with a distinctive Russian accent. Intonation of Russian speakers also is quite distinctive. And a hint at distinguishing Czech/Slovak speakers of English from Poles:: Czechs tend to place word stress on the first syllable.

  73. language hat said,

    July 9, 2010 @ 4:51 pm

    Recently I asked a new colleague what language she had just been speaking on the phone – she said Russian, so I assumed she was Russian. I only found out later by accident that she was from Ukraine.

    Well, she could be Russian and from Ukraine. There are lots and lots of Russian-identified citizens of Ukraine (which of course is one of their political problems).

  74. Leo said,

    July 9, 2010 @ 5:01 pm

    That's why I didn't want to get it wrong!

  75. Áine ní Dhonnchadha said,

    July 9, 2010 @ 6:04 pm

    Andrew (not the same one) said, "while Christopher Lambert plays a Scot with a French accent." Historically speaking, that one's not quite the howler it could be, although the character in question is clearly not a Franco so it's somewhat embarrassing.

  76. Ray Dillinger said,

    July 9, 2010 @ 8:39 pm

    What I don't understand is why they didn't just say they were from … oh, I don't know … Cleveland.

    While regional accents definitely exist in the US, they're not by any means universal. An American with an odd accent is a nonissue. Basically, if you're any human color and have any accent, but speak English fairly fluently, you're fairly believable as an American.

    I know a guy who speaks with an east-Tennessee coalcracker accent. He's from Detroit. I know another guy who speaks with a Castilian, as opposed to Mexican, Spanish accent. He's from Illinois. His parents are Mexican, and his grandparents are from Spain. I know a woman who speaks with an Albanian accent (recognizable to most Americans only from a parody of it by a female "Tasmanian" Devil in Bugs Bunny cartoons, ironically enough). She's from Georgia – Atlanta Georgia, not Russian Georgia. I grew up to age eight or so speaking a centuries-old isolated dialect of English as an L2. I took speech classes and got rid of that accent (or so I thought – actually I exchanged it for Midwestern), then moved to California and undertook some effort again to get rid of the Midwestern accent.

    I mean, seriously, we Americans are so mixed up we're barely even keeping track anymore. I would not question an American with a Russian accent; I'd just assume their parents were Russian or that they'd grown up in a Russian enclave community in the US. (Heck, even nearby San Francisco has a Russian enclave. It's in the Sunset District, just west of the Cantonese enclave). But if someone claimed they were from Quebec? *THEN* a Russian accent would sound bizarre, because as far as I know there are no Russian enclaves in Quebec.

  77. Stephen Jones said,

    July 10, 2010 @ 1:25 am

    they said "you speak excellent French" – at which I felt somewhat proud, until they added "Are you Belgian?".

    This happened to me a lot. You speak fluent French but have a strange accent they can't pin down, so they opt for presuming the variety they are least familiar with.

    A variant on the theme of the Murders in the Rue Morgue.

  78. hmf said,

    July 10, 2010 @ 12:55 pm

    re: "French-related accents are often perceived in the West as 'high-status' and 'acceptable' "

    In David Grann's "The Mark of a Masterpiece," an article that appears in the very same issue of the New Yorker (see http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2010/07/12/100712fa_fact_grann?currentPage=all), we encounter this sentence: "Biro speaks English with an accent that seems to combine traces of French and Hungarian—he was born in Budapest—which contributes to an air of unplaceable refinement."

  79. BW said,

    July 11, 2010 @ 2:47 am

    Re: So, is it rude to ask someone with an accent where they are from?

    If you're asking a stranger, I'd say yes. If it's someone you have more contact with – a colleague, someone you chat with at a party – then it's natural that you're curious, and at a party it could lead to an interesting conversation.

    I have experience living as a foreigner in London and the SF Bay area. In London, no one commented on my accent (except in casual settings), and it contributed to my feeling of being at home in the city, of belonging there. I think there are three reasons for this: 1 – almost half of the population of London are foreigners, so you'd have to ask every other person you meet, 2 – it is considered impolite, prying, nosy, 3 – because there are so many foreigners coming from so many different countries, people are pretty good at recognizing accents, so they probably knew without asking.

    In the Bay area, I constantly got asked by strangers where I was from – people in supermarkets, on the street, everywhere. I hated it because it was like telling me 'you're not from here, you don't belong here, you're not like us'. And most people weren't interested in the answer and probably didn't know the difference between one European country and another anyway. I think there may also have been other, subtler differences between London and CA that signaled inclusion / exclusion, but I can't pinpoint any.

  80. Bob Violence said,

    July 11, 2010 @ 3:52 am

    speaking as someone who's read all the (fleming) books, bond's not actually english–he's half scottish, half swiss, and did a fair bit of growing up on the continent.

    FWIW, Bond's origins were first mentioned in You Only Live Twice, written after Connery had already made two films in the role. It's very doubtful Fleming originally conceived the character as part-Scottish, but AFAIK he never contradicted it in the books, and in any case I don't think it has any bearing on the movies (I'm not hung up on fidelity to the source).

    Connery is (in)famous for steadfastly refusing to put on a different accent — over his career he played Irishmen, a Spaniard, a Norwegian, a Berber, a Saudi Arabian, a Lithuanian and King Agamemnon, and used more or less his own natural accent for all of them.

  81. Army1987 said,

    July 11, 2010 @ 4:59 pm

    But whether Europeans are any better than Americans at distinguishing a Quebecois from a Russian accent I don't know.

    In Italy practically anyone is familiar with a stereotype of the Russian accent. I don't remember ever hearing someone actually from Russia so I'm not sure how it relates to the real Russian accent, but actual Polish people I do know sound about halfway between the German stereotype accent — which, judging from the way the Pope speaks, is close enough to the real thing — and the stereotype Russian accent, and that kind of makes sense.

  82. bunsen_lamp said,

    July 11, 2010 @ 5:38 pm

    >I very frequently get asked if I'm from "Pribaltika", meaning Latvia, Lithuania, or Estonia.

    Lee Harvey Oswald was also mistaken because of his funny accent as somebody from "Pribaltika," when he worked in a radio factory in Minsk.

    >She's from Georgia – Atlanta Georgia, not Russian Georgia.

    That's a very unfortunate choice of words. You don't speak about Dutch Indo-China when you mean Indonesia, or French North-Africa when referring to Algeria, not anymore. Actually Georgia has not been Russian since the Russian Empire collapsed, in 1918?

  83. Roger Hughes said,

    July 11, 2010 @ 6:23 pm

    @ TonyK:
    how could these cover stories possibly succeed? If I tell you I'm from Belgium, and you know somebody else from Belgium, you will be predisposed to introduce us to each other at the earliest opportunity. And then my cover is blown, right? I don't get it. Is somebody being economical with the truth here?

    The choice of trilingual Belgium may have been a deliberate one there: if you're introduced to a Fleming, portray yourself as a francophone, and vice versa (and if you don't know which they are, or they seem like they might be fluent in both, claim to come from the Ostkantonen…)

  84. Erica said,

    July 12, 2010 @ 12:52 pm

    We have thousands of Russian and Eastern European immigrants here in Western Mass, and a whole lotta folks of French-Canadian descent. I can't tell a Ukrainian from a Russian when they're speaking English, but I sure can tell them from a French-Canadian. Until this crowd got arrested, who would have even thunk that there would be Russian spies? Why did they even need to disguise where they were from? The one that really kills me is Peru — I mean, c'mon — "I am fram Peru and zis is my vife" seems not so convincing.

    It's such a curious story all around.

  85. Charles said,

    July 12, 2010 @ 12:52 pm

    It's entirely possible that some people thought, "wow, she doesn't sound Belgian" but were simply too polite to mention it. I mean, what are you supposed to do when you notice something like that? Call the FBI? "Yes I'd like to report someone who claims to be Belgian but doesn't sound Belgian to me."

    Or you can just go with the "ignorant and provincial American" meme, although in my opinion that says more about you than about the Americans.

  86. vanya said,

    July 13, 2010 @ 9:48 am

    in New England a Yankee is a Vermonter; in Vermont, a Yankee is someone who eats pie for breakfast. [I have no idea where that's from. I've known it for years.]

    Speaking as someone whose family has lived in New Hampshire for 10 generations, I'd just like to say that this statement is hogwash. Vermonters have no special claim to "Yankee" status within New England.

    [(myl) Hogwash it may be, but there's no question that it's something that people say. I first heard it as a child in rural eastern Connecticut, where some of our neighbors (who could trace their ancestry back to the town's founding in 1690) used to say such things. Though to be fair, they mostly had family members in Vermont, as a result of some centuries-old settlement pattern that I never quite understood.]

  87. vanya said,

    July 13, 2010 @ 9:53 am

    I very frequently get asked if I'm from "Pribaltika", meaning Latvia, Lithuania, or Estonia. I take it as a compliment to my Russian

    Barbara – I wouldn't necessarily take it as a compliment. To my mind tha comment means "you seem to speak pretty well, but you have a very obviously foreign accent." When I first lived in Russia I used to take that comment as a compliment as well, until I went to Riga and discovered how poorly non-Russians in Pribaltika actually speak Russian.

  88. vanya said,

    July 13, 2010 @ 1:53 pm

    Oh, I have no doubt people say it, it sounds cute, and plausible to outsiders. I'm just saying it has no bearing on reality. As you mention yourself in your previous post "Yankee" within New England means what you say it does – a descendant of an old English settler family, generally living a rural existence – proficient with the skills of farming, fishing, trapping and mending things. They can be from Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts or even, apparently, Connecticut. Within New Hampshire I have never heard that Vermont has any special claim on Yankeedom, quite the opposite as we Granite Staters suppose the Left Bank to be populated almost entirely by New York divorcees and hippies. I would suspect Maine is closer to the ideal.

  89. Terry Hunt said,

    July 16, 2010 @ 11:51 am

    @ Andrew (not the same one): "In Highlander [Sean Connery] plays a Spaniard with a Scots accent . . . ." — if I remember correctly (and I certainly didn't watch it twice!) he actually plays an Ancient Egyptian passing as a mediaeval Spaniard in early modern Scotland. .

  90. Dani said,

    August 31, 2010 @ 1:12 am

    I am an American who started learning Russian when I was 19 and after assimilating myself in Russian culture I can now think in the launguage and can tell the difference by region of Russian.

    When I make Russian accents while speaking English I can sound like the girl from Moscow, Piete Gorske, Armenia-Russian, Ukraine, Breast or Minsk, Siberia, lithuanian (lol you know what I'm talking about!) Vladilastok….there is a huge difference. Really amazing phonetics to learn. My advantage was I had 8 years 1 hour per day speach therapy class starting at age 4 so my accents make "real Russian's" call me a liar or CIA. Also I am told I speak better russian than the spys america sends to russia. My russian friends refuse to believe I am french/swedish american and not russian!

    My favorite accent is Belarussian because it's a higher pitch with more intonations, and sounds almost dutch and very smooth and quick.
    Ukraine and Polish accents sound like birds singing (sometimes like Elves talking!)
    Siberia accents have lazy "t", "s" and almost have a flair of a new york type accent.
    mid russia in the valley near the ural mnts is the hardest to understand, deep, monotone.
    Moscow, St Petersburg accent sound to me still deep with long intonations but harder "t's" and more precise prounounciations with a slight flair of brittish phrases and word placement (depending on education).

    Also my stepmother was a proffesor for litterature and phonetics in russian, and my step aunt is from other side of russia and I watch the mix at dinner parties

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