My Danish friend told me long ago that a Swede's idea of a good time is being snowed in alone in a tiny cabin, 40 miles (okay, 60 kilometers) from the closest neighbor. The Dane also said that all the drunks on Copenhagen's streets were Swedes, and of course the Swedes say the reverse, that all the drunks on the streets of Malmo, right across the straits from Copenhagen, are Danes. At least the two countries share a common written language, with most Swedes understanding Danes and vice versa, if the person speaks slowly enough to overcome the regional accents ... and that can be very slowly.
I've had a similar problem in the southern U.S. At Everglades National Park, it took careful listening to translate "Aino buz n err" to "Ain't no bugs in there," when one maintenance man told another to go ahead and clean the restroom. The second Floridian didn't want to encounter the mosquitoes he knew had to be in the building, given its airless interior.
While we watched some guys fishing a lake in Tennessee, one of them said he hadn't caught anything yet: "Too much mouse on the line." After a couple tries at understanding, and watching what he was pulling in at the end of each cast, we realized what he meant, and exclaimed, "oh, moss!" Luckily, he had a sense of humor and said, "Oh, we're just a bunch of hillbillies around here."
The stereotype of southern people being dumb and uneducated is based on this kind of exchange. Looking at our conversation from the other direction, when the Tennessee fisherman heard us speak, he may have thought, "They must be Yankees from up north; they sound like the people on TV." Although we've had a few TV commentators (for example, Bill Moyers) who have the soft enunciation of a person from Texas, we don't typically hear the voices of people from the Deep South - until relatively recently. NPR has been including news clips from people in the Deep South, complete with distinctive accents, but so far the people on tape are intelligible to the rest of us (or at least to me).
Communicating through an accent can have unintended consequences. How many times have you called for information or technical support and gotten a person speaking with such a heavy accent that, not only are you convinced he or she is from India, but the call is totally useless because you can't understand what's being said? Of course, if I get a really geeky computer technical support person, sometimes they speak so quickly, using so much jargon, that I'm lost anyway, even if they seem to use perfectly understandable English. Of course, if I understood what those guys were saying, I wouldn't be calling for technical support. Luckily, most of the time you and I can hang up and start over.
If I get a helpful and easily understood person, I usually ask them where they're located and sometimes ask about their weather too. In fact, I ask the location of anyone I talk to at a call center and often find out it's Iowa, Florida, or Prince Edward Island. Sometimes it's Mumbai. Call centers can be located anywhere, a boon to rural areas - that is if we're willing to get paid little enough to do what must be at times a very boring job.
Most of the time, someone else's accent has no negative consequences for the listener, but when I was trying to complete the last of my undergraduate breadth requirements, an accent was part of my earning the worst grade of my college career. I was taking logic, which at the University of California at the time was a form of abstract algebra and satisfied the science requirement. The way the class was taught, there was the professor's lecture once or twice a week and then two sessions with a teaching assistant in a group almost as large as the lecture. The teacher's assistant was from Taiwan and had an accent so thick, few sentences were immediately intelligible. That, combined with the obscurity of the subject matter, led to my C-minus in the class. Well, I should say the accent, the subject matter, and my stubborn refusal to drop the class and get a better grade with something else. Looking back, given my love of plants, I wonder why I didn't take botany. But, then I would have had to learn some Latin, and I would have been the one with the rotten accent.
Victoria Stoppiello is a north coast freelance writer whose New Jersey-born and bred husband is convinced he doesn't have an accent.