The book I'll be talking about is You Say Potato: A Book about Accents, a really entertaining, yet serious review of issues regarding accents and their role in everyday life, particularly in contexts where people may be self-conscious about them the most. In this short post, I would like to review the book in my own personal style.
|This would be me in Trinity College Dublin, reading the book on a beautiful sunny morning.|
The first appealing thing about the book is the fact that its style is conversational, and as a reader I felt I was actually at the Crystals' dinner table (and I have to say, after reading the book, I would defo love to be invited to have supper with them!). With David providing the historical background and the technical aspects of the discussion and Ben leading us through the world of the performing arts and illustrating his points with his anecdotes, this book is a great introduction for those people who have never pondered on the role of accents, or for those who have and need further evidence that accent does matter (but for what?)...
In this respect, as I read the opening chapters, I couldn't help thinking of the classic "Does Accent Matter?", by John Honey. I would be tempted to say the Crystals' book, in many respects, is an update of some of the chapters of Honey's material, and goes beyond it, by analysing accents in four sections, called: Accent Passions, Accents Present, Accents Past and Accents Future.
The initial exploration of some basics of accents starts with a brief, simple explanation of the articulatory processes involved in the production and classification of sounds, and some comments regarding the acquisition of accents. A more daunting endeavour later in the book is the making of an "Accent Map" that attempts to place all the accents discussed. This map proves to the reader how intricate the accent issue is, at least for, but not exclusively, Britain, where there are more accents per area than anywhere else in the English-speaking world.
David Crystal provides a really reader-friendly description of different accent groups, with plenty of examples for the non-specialist to have an idea of what a certain accent sounds like. One of the sections I found most useful is the "how to tell....from..." section, where David provides a few tips and tricks to distinguish Americans from Canadians, New Zealanders from Australians, among other groups.
Issues of accent and identity, including historical and present "gut feelings" regarding accents are described through numerous quotes, including some mythical and prejudist views on Brummie (the old "ugly city, ugly speech" prejudice) in previous centuries (yes, including the 1990s....and probably still at present?) and a reivindication of regional accents in the media by those trying to explain why these prejudices are a mere "stupidity" (sic). It is true that we are all, to a certain extent, biased towards a particular accent group, so even though I am not a native speaker of English myself, I have to admit I felt a bit ashamed of having nodded in agreement when reading a few of these "stupid remarks" on accents.
As I have found in many current articles on accents (see my collection here), the book also goes over some of the issues we regularly see commented on the media and that non-specialists also pick out, like Brit pop and rock musicians using American accents, and Hollywood villains going for posh RP-like accents, and the role of accents when targetting certain audiences in advertising. Current phenomena worth exploring further, such as Uptalk, and Mockney, and notions of sound symbolism (what is known as "Phonesthesia") are also referred to briefly.
Another interesting thing about the book is the way accents are referred to in the different anecdotes retold by Ben, with notions like "blue", "rough", "smooth", words that refer to other senses and still help us picture different accents and voices (if I am not mistaken, this is called "synesthesia"). I particularly adored the definition of accents as "clusters of snowflake-unique sounds" (p.37). If you scroll below and hear Ben's rendering of a Shakespearean sonnet in original pronunciation, you will surely come up with your own adjectives and accent-resemblances as well.
It was, to me, so lovely to read about the reconstruction of Shakespeare's Original Pronunciation (OP) again, which is also described in such a lively manner in the book Pronouncing Shakespeare. When you read the accounts by both Ben and David, and you see this video, you clearly feel the power of accent, the power of voice quality and articulatory settings, and somehow, you go back to that wonderful setting of Elizabethan theatre.
All in all, I have to say I loved the book, as I felt I was reading many books into one, and I would love to see many of the points raised developed into further work. I got a thrill out of reading historical documents and quotes, since probably the current views are more easy to trace on the Internet nowadays. Until the Time Machine gets invented, we can always read books by David Crystal, where we are sure to find the voices of times past brought into the present!
And yes, the title of the book refers to this song we all know about!
Other reviews and articles on the book: