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Ya’gotta accentuate the positive

by Thomas Dillon

Men are from Mars and women are from Venus — but my wife is from Kagoshima.

That means she doesn’t speak Japanese the way most people do. She carries a wee accent. Wee to me, for I more or less jam the entire Japanese language into the very same box — one stamped with a question mark.

To fellow Japanese, though, her words stick out like a sumo wrestler on skates. Even in the anonymous crush of Tokyo, all she need do is peep out a single sentence, and for surrounding commuters she instantly changes from some lady standing by the door into some lady from Kagoshima standing by the door.

Now, it could be worse. She could be blocking the door. And rather than her northern Kagoshima sing-song, she could be babbling in southern Kagoshima chaos, the dialect of doom. It is said the folks in southern Kagoshima messed up their language on purpose, in order to confuse outside enemies. Unfortunately, they also confused outside friends. As a result, even my wife has trouble comprehending people who grew up just one breezy spit to the south of her Kagoshima home.

Take, for example, this ancient matron at one of her family weddings. The lady sat there jabbering away like a politician up for re-election, but making even less sense. Still, everyone bowed, smiled and waited on her hand and zori.

“We’re not sure what she’s saying,” confessed my wife, “or even who she is. We just feed her. She always shows up, so she must be related.”

Using similar logic, my wife might also be related to our paperboy. However, with him we can communicate — at least enough to know he has his own family.

While most people speak the national standard, Japan is dotted with dialects, both mild and wild, from top to bottom. Southern Kagoshima’s brogue is one of the nastiest, along with that of the Tohoku area in the frigid north, where, I hear, patterns of chattering teeth are incorporated as phonemes.

As a language teacher, my wife has lost more than one job chance when her potential employer decreed: “Sorry. But here we teach only ‘correct’ Japanese.”

Rather than erupt at such snobbery, my wife instead butterflied into a Japanese version of Eliza Doolittle: “The tori in Ogori stay mainly in the mori!”

For months our house echoed with her efforts to mimic Tokyo intonation. While she could never erase her twang, she did tone it down to a twing, and managed to find work.

Still, all she has to do is drop into a conversation with her mother or sisters and the old accent arrows right back. A countrified Mrs. Hyde hidden just beneath the genteel Dr. Jekyll.

Having lived myself 10 years in central Kyushu, I am often asked if I could manage the dialect there, Kumamoto-ben, as it is called. I might as well be asked if I can manage whale calls. I also find it cute that I am asked such questions in English. The fact that I struggle to speak even standard Japanese doesn’t seem to dawn on casual conversation makers. But if you can barely handle a fastball, how on earth can you hit a curve?

Another question I frequently hear concerns accents from my home. As in: Don’t you have one?

Not that I ever noticed. My image of America used to be one where everyone south of Kentucky drawled and everyone north of New York talked like JFK. The rest of us were just normal, clean-speaking citizens.

Then came my first stop home after several years in Japan. On my arm leaned my Japanese bride.

Alone at night, she eyed me in our bedroom.

“They don’t talk like you do,” she whispered, speaking of my family. “They talk funny.”

The next day one of my sisters gave me the same eyes, only in the kitchen.

“You don’t talk like we do,” she whispered. “You talk funny.”

Indeed, I now identified a nasal plunk to their inflection that I myself had somehow lost. Not to mention their rush on grammar errors — like untamed horses on stampede.

“He don’t talk like we’uns! He ain’t hisself no more!”

From their point of view, my English sounded even stranger. For one thing (they claimed) I talked so s-l-o-w. They would snap their fingers when I spoke and tap their watches.

Next, they said, my words were pinched, that they leapt up and down at odd places, as if my intonation were tied to a yo-yo.

Predictably, though, in a few days it all changed. I settled back into the local vernacular as if I’d never left. The return of the native, a success at last.

Back home in Japan, I made my own Jekyll-Hyde transformation and left my Midwestern dialect in our luggage. Our husband-wife conversation thus returned to familiar patterns.

So, while men are from Mars and women from Venus, English-wise my wife and I have founded our own planet — one with our own accent.

The pace may be unnatural and the pitch may be off, but at least one thing is certain.

It’s a pitch that we both can hit.