Life in Germany


By Anli Serfontein

    “You don’t speak like the Queen?” the old lady said in a heavy German accent, while fixing me with her blazing blue eyes. I had just introduced myself as a South African to my very first English conversation class at the Volkshochschule in Trier.
   I was rather taken aback by the comment. I was there to teach them English and not to have my own accent scrutinized.
    Since then, I’ve had many opportunities to wonder about the German pedantry for a posh English accent.
    A Cambridge educated English friend of mine was told, the first time she met her future German father-in-law, that she did not have the right accent, because she definitely did not speak English the way it was taught to him at school.
    Fair enough. In the English speaking world, we also tend to judge people’s social, academic and sometimes regional backgrounds  by their accents within the first few minutes of them opening their mouths.

    In the former
British Empire, colonialism and the resulting feeling of social inferiority meant that the middle- and upper classes aspired to speak with a posh accent known as received pronunciation (RP). This accent was associated with the BBC, the British public school system and the upper classes in England. Another English friend calls it “colonial posh”. In South Africa we joked that it is like speaking with a hot potato in your mouth.
    Maggie Thatcher is not alone in changing  her accent to climb the social ladder. South Africans, who wanted to make a career in broadcasting in
London, actually took elocution classes to change their South African accents to posh, before making it on the air in Britain.
     Yet, this RP accent, which originates from the southeast of England, is spoken by only about 3-5% of the people in England.
    In the last decade even the BBC has employed more correspondents and presenters with regional accents.
    When Nelson Mandela came to power, South Africans found new pride in their culture and accent. Today, in
London, you can hear the South African accent all over the place -  louder than posh English, a few pitches lower and then the flattening of the vowels.
    It is this flattening of the vowels that drives my daughter’s English teacher in
to despair.  The other 33 pupils fade into oblivion as all efforts concentrate on correcting her vowels. During  a recent debate in  English, none of the other pupils understood her contribution. She was asked to repeat the sentence -  this time without an accent, please!
    Nit-picking about an English native speaker’s accent by Germans, is something that baffles me. Even more so, because German accents mostly denotes one’s regional, rather than social background and are the pride of their speakers.
    Sometimes I fume, at the arrogance of some teachers and tell my daughter, “You’re South African, I definitely don’t want you to get a Pommy-Kraut accent”, i.e. speak posh English with a German accent. Mostly I try and retain my sense of humour and tell my German friends, that after all, I don’t expect Edmund Stoiber to change his Bavarian accent.
    We should simply see accents are part of our heritage.
    Come to think of it, there is one occasion where I do a fair imitation of the Queen. It is when I stutter a few sentences in French. That hot potato is firmly implanted in my mouth, to expose me once and for all as an English native speaker. Considering the centuries-old difficulties that has existed in Anglo-Franco relations, not the best of moments!

Anli Serfontein is a South African freelance journalist living in Trier.

 Article published in Spotlight Magazine in July 2003

 © Anli Serfontein 2003