June 20, 2012 by JL Walker
Remember the ’90s TV show, Murphy Brown? One of the loveable characters was Corky Sherwood, the southern beauty queen blond, who would slip into a thick drawl whenever she got upset. A great comedic device, she started as a prim and proper journalist and would turn into a woman who sounded less educated because of a strong accent. But does this really happen? Do people really lose control of their accents in certain emotional situations? As a foreigner in a foreign land, I can assure you that it does happen!
I like to think I’m rather fluent in Italian. I’ve studied the grammar, I live here permanently and I even work as a translator. Also, I’ve been told on occasion (usually by people who hear me say a few little words) that I have a pretty good accent when I speak the language. However, I do hear my Italian changing in various situations. When I’m at ease, I can manage a pretty decent Milanese way of speaking – including the proper hand gestures when necessary. As I get more uncomfortable or emotional for whatever reason, I lose control over the rolling of my “r”s, the proper vowel sounds and the right cadence for un buon italiano.
For example, I hate making phone calls. All my life, in any language, I’ve never liked talking on the phone. It’s even more intimidating to speak on the phone in a foreign language, and I get more nervous when I’m talking to a new person or in a new situation. So, the other day when I called the prefettura, I could feel the American accent coming on strong!
This is true at other times too. Imagine walking across a busy city street and a motorcycle speeds through a red light, cutting you off. You get angry and want to tell the motorcycle driver how you feel. During a fit of rage like this, what would come to mind faster: a new word you learned a few years ago, or a colorful phrase you picked up when you were first learning about emotions? Your brain made a connection with a certain way of speaking when you were coming to terms with things like anger. So when emotions cloud the brain, it’s easy to slip into old habits. And you just might have a Corky moment.