When in Rome

Written by: Maura


I recently had my first encounter with a white expat who has adopted a fake local accent. At first, I thought my ears were playing tricks on me. Perhaps she has a speech impediment? But no, I have known this person for three months and surely I would have picked up on a stutter or stammer by now.

Up until last week, all I ever heard out of her mouth was a standard, region-less North American accent. Then suddenly, out of nowhere, it was like she was possessed by a Tortolan spirit and started speaking like she was born and raised in the Caribbean.

If you’ve never heard a Virgin Islands accent before, here is a funny example to give you an idea:

In its inception, the accent’s offbeat head would only appear if we were talking to a local West Indian. My initial thought was that maybe this was simply her attempt to fit in. It was like we were back in secondary school and the locals are the cool kids and here she is, shamelessly mimicking their ways in an effort to be a part of the gang. But now, this accent has become part and parcel of her everyday speech, even when it’s just us expats.

In a mere week, the situation progressed to the point where I began to feel like I needed a translator to understand her. When I’m in a good mood and have patience to spare, I just sit there, nod along, and smile when she speaks even though I have no clue what she is saying. Other times, I feel the need to contribute to the conversation, otherwise I’m pretty sure all the smiling and nodding makes her wonder if there is nothing but air between my ears.

As a self-confessed chatter box, I find it hard to just sit there and not participate. Though I am completely lost in the conversation, I still want to contribute and talk to this nutter. So I was finally left with no choice but to fess up and admit that since Operation: Accent Transformation, I can no longer understand a word she says.

*click for image credit

*click for image credit

I was surprised to find that this was not cause for embarrassment on her end, her excuse being that she has a lot of local friends and had Haitian friends when she was in college…a quarter of a century ago. While that may be the case, I had Italian-American friends while I was growing up that sounded like cast members of the Sopranos. Applying her logic, does that mean that twenty years later I should sound something like Snooki from MTV’s Jersey Shore? Oh my gawd… no.

Part of me is hoping that this is just a phase and that eventually she will revert back to her natural accent. In the meantime, I’m trying my best to see the funny side of the situation, but it’s unfortunately become more of a pet peeve rather than a source of entertainment. I can only imagine where this cool kid wannabe act may lead – at this point I wouldn’t be at all surprised if she decided to shun her straight white girl hair and opt for corn rows.

*click for image credit

*click for image credit

On the plus side, I am starting to find her local immersion to be slightly educational. This week I learned the word “chupsing”. Unworldly me thought she said “stooping” and was lost in conversation once again. Was she talking about sitting on a stoop? Was she stooping down low? I was grasping at straws.

Once translated for my Irish-American ear, I learned that chupsing is the act of sucking one’s teeth, usually always in disgust or disdain. I have never witnessed anyone sucking their teeth before but have been told it’s a common, but not very polite, West Indian thing to do. I guess it’s the equivalent of rolling your eyes in the Western world, though slightly more subtle.

While I am unable to come close to imitating a proper Caribbean accent, to keep an open mind, I decided to give chupsing a try. And…it was probably the most unnatural thing I have ever done. Maybe I’m doing it wrong, but it sounds just awful – only slightly less grating on the ears than the sound of scratching a chalkboard with your nails.

In my opinion, this woman is a cultural voyeur to the highest degree. She does not simply observe and soak up the local culture, she must emulate what she sees. People say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery so I guess her cultural identity crisis is a pretty big compliment to Tortola. Personally, while I’m a fan of island life, I think I’ll remain firmly grounded in my Irish and American roots for now – at least when it comes to my speech.

*click for image credit

*click for image credit

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7 thoughts on “When in Rome

  1. That video was way too funny! The accent is slightly different than Barbados, but the language (words) are the same. Words we would never use, but there, they don’t mean the same thing. Being a fairly strong feminist, I nearly fell over the first time ‘serious as cunt’ came out of my mouth but in Barbados it does not have the same negative quality as we ‘whites’ give it. I so miss it! I lived in Barbados for 15 years and was married to a local, poor black man and my best friend was black. Actually, I was the only white woman there for over 6 years until an English woman married a fellow from up the road. So, I’m afraid I’m one of those who ‘took over the accent’. It took me two years of riding the bus to even begin to understand conversations. They talk so fast. I didn’t do it conciously, but it came with time. I miss all that passion and I still ‘suck teeth’ or chups when the occassion arrises. When I returned to Canada in 2007, I took a refresher course at the college and my fellows students wanted to ‘hear some of my funny BIM stories’ and I had to do it in accent or Bajun slang, as they would say. It’s not near so funny in plain old English. It was a hoot and the stories were enjoyed. I want to put some on my blog but I’ve been away so long now that it’s hard to remember all that slang and how to make it come together. I had some pretty interesting, fun adventures in my 15 years so hopefully one of these days I will get back to blogging and write them down. I enjoy reading your stories. I miss Island life but when I turned 60 and was living alone, working and trying to maintain everything it became too difficult so I returned home to Canada. You can find my blog at http://sjackson424.wordpress.com/. I think I’m at the stage where I had just manifested BIM into my reality. I haven’t done anything lately as typing bothers my arms. I’m dealing with frozen shoulder right now. For now, I’ll just enjoy your stories! Thanks for posting, Sandi

    • Hi Sandra, Thanks for your note, glad you found us and could take a trip down memory lane! Sounds like you had quite the colorful past in Barbados – once an island girl, always an island girl. 😉

  2. Hhmm…I work with West Indians, educated, lovely people (some educated in the states) who can speak without an accent when talking to tourists or revert to island speak in seconds. I consider this being multilingual. I also at times, find myself speaking to “meh boy when he reach” only because it seems appropriate. I also find myself sucking teeth when “skinny white girls” tend to make fun of my friends. Island life is like living anywhere in the world. Sometimes picking up a few local phrases and accents are quite normal when you’ve lived in Texas, or Cali, or North Carolina….Really….isn’t there something funnier going on?

    • Hi Robin, Thank you for your note. I agree, it’s a great culture in many ways – this post was not intended to be a put-down to the West Indian accent, just the author remarking on her opinion and the humor she finds in the expat woman who adopted the accent seemingly out of nowhere. Humor is certainly subjective – I hope you can find something else that entertains you here in the future. Best wishes to you! 🙂

  3. I am proud of my Accent but being from one of the tourist centers of the Virgin Islands and working in that industry I have to revert to Standard English when i’m dealing with them, and other cases where i want to look and sound educated. But anything else I rock My Accent Deh Man Straight every day like I Ah Crazy man Misson!! Virgin Gorda in the Place…. Ayo Gah to know bout this thing……. but I see some and yes it is still weird Caucasian Locals speaking like Me…. totally funny looking but you have to accept that, some of them talk worst than I do.

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