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The Aspie Accent

I am often asked about my “accent”. The most common guess is that it’s a “British” accent, while I lived in London for about a year I don’t think that my accent changed much during that time (people have commented on the way I speak since I was in primary school). Also there isn’t a “British accent” anyway, the Wikipedia page of Regional Accents of English has the first three sections devoted to accents in the island of Britain (and Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom which people often mean when they sat “Britain”). The Received Pronounciation is the main BBC accent and the accent that is most associated with Britain/England/the UK (which are three different things even though most people don’t know it) and I don’t think that I sound like that at all.

I’ve had various other guesses, the Netherlands (where I lived for a few years but mostly spoke to other foreigners), New Zealand (which I’ve visited a couple of times for conferences), Denmark (the closest I got was attending a conference in Sweden), and probably others I can’t remember.

If I actually had developed an accent from another country then it would probably be from the US. The amount of time I’ve spent watching Hollywood movies and watching US TV shows greatly exceeds the amount of time I’ve spent listening to people from all other countries. The fact that among all the people who wanted to try and guess where my accent supposedly originated none have ever included the US seems like strong evidence to suggest that I don’t have any sort of accent that really derives from another country. Also I have never had someone mistake me for being a resident of their own country based on accent which seems like clear evidence that all claims about me having a foreign accent are bogus.

Autism forums such as WrongPlanet.net [1] always turn up plenty of results for a search on “accent”. In such discussions it seems that a “British accent” is most common mistake and there are often theories raised about why that is – often related to speaking in a formal or precise way or by using a large vocabulary. Also in such discussions the list of countries that people supposedly have accents from is very inclusive, it seems that any country that the listener has heard of but doesn’t know that well is a good candidate. The fact that Aspies from outside the US are rarely regarded as having an American accent could be due to the fact that Hollywood has made most of the world population aware of what most American accents sound like.

Also if I really had some sort of accent from another country then probably someone would comment on that when I’m outside Australia. When I’m travelling people tend to recognise my accent as Australian, while it doesn’t please me when someone thinks that I sound like Crocodile Dundee (as happened in the Netherlands) it might not be entirely inaccurate.

This is Annoying

The way the issue of accent is raised is generally in the form of people asking where I’m from, it seems to imply that they don’t think I belong in Australia because of the way I speak. It’s particularly annoying when people seem unable to realise that they are being obnoxious after the first wrong guess. When I reply “no” to the first “are you from $COUNTRY” question and don’t offer any further commentary it’s not an invitation to play 20 questions regarding where I’m supposedly from, it’s actually an indication that I’m not interested in a conversation on that topic. A Social Skills 101 course would include teaching people that when someone uses one-word answers to your questions it usually means that they either don’t like your questions or don’t want to talk to you.

Social Skills vs Status

The combination of persistence and misreading a social situation which are involved when someone interrogates me about my supposed accent are both parts of the diagnostic criteria for Autism. But I generally don’t get questions about my “accent” in situations where there are many Aspies (IE anything related to the Free Software community). I think that this is because my interactions with people in the Free Software community are based around work (with HR rules against being a jerk) and community events where no-one would doubt that I belong.

I mostly get questions about my “accent” from random middle-class white people who feel entitled to query other people about their status who I meet in situations where there is nothing restraining them from being a jerk. For example random people I meet on public transport.

9 comments to The Aspie Accent

  • A Reader

    I have two children, both Aspie. They’ve never been outside Australia. People are always asking why my children (aged nine and six) have an accent. My nine year old has been asked about his accent. My six year old has other parents at the park asking my partner and I about her accent. I find this really annoying and it’s a way to go to make a child feel even more ‘different’. Both my children have a formal way of speaking and say some words a little posh sounding but that is far better than the Crocodile Hunter Aussie accent ;) I’ve answered with “no, it’s just the way he/she speaks” in a polite but firm manner that I hope gets the message across that this is not a question I like.

    It really bothers me that Aspies are described as having less developed social skills. In my experience, neurotypicals can do with social skills lessons too. Aspies are far more tolerant of people being slightly ‘different’. Neurotypicals are often the ones who highlight differences. Especially annoying are the ones who then consider themselves experts on “Asberjers”…

  • Andy Cater

    You write like a Brit. I’d always assumed you were based in the Netherlands but could be from anywhere. The only thing I realised was that you were/are one of the two people who understands SE Linux not in the US. Aspie not so much – expert yes. It is always possible that the whole of the Debian developer community is non neurotypical of course based on a limited sampling – Andy, non-neurotypical :)

  • etbe

    Andy: Australian English is generally much closer to British English than US English in terms of grammar and spelling. I adopt some American spellings such as “color” but generally prefer “ise” to ize” even though my spelling checkers usually whinge. I’m not sure whether it’s accurate to say that I write like a Brit, but I think I write in a more formal manner than most people and it seems plausible that there would be a trend towards more formal writing among British people.

    When I lived in .nl I kept using my .com.au domain and I expect that many people predicted my return to .au based on that.

    In terms of the number of Aspies in the Debian community, I think that there is obviously a significant number of NTs (based on meeting DDs and observing them) and it’s quite likely that most DDs are NTs. But it’s plausible for 30% or 40% of DDs to be Aspies.

  • Ole Laursen

    If it continues to bother you, I think you need to work on your no – you need something more effective to shut people up, like the “it’s just the way I speak” or “please stop asking me about this” and look displeased.

  • etbe

    I don’t think I have a problem with looking displeased. When I’m just concentrating on something people sometimes think I’m angry – that’s a really common way that NTs misread Aspies. But the problem is that there are situations where it’s beneficial for me to get along with other people and a “please stop asking” would be more likely to get a huffy response.

    The issue is that people tend not to try this sort of thing unless they expect that they can get away with it, and their expectations are usually correct.

  • Francesco

    I mostly get questions about my “accent” from random middle-class white people who feel entitled to query other people about their status who I meet in situations where there is nothing restraining them from being a jerk. For example random people I meet on public transport.

    Care to explain what happens precisely? You are on public transport and those “random middle-class white people” start talking to you for no apparent reason?
    (if so God bless Australia, atleast people are trying to socialise there)

  • etbe

    Francesco: Yes, it starts with comments about the weather or some other inane topic and then moves quickly to where I’m supposedly from. When such a conversation is started by someone who’s less privileged then they don’t tend to ask questions about accent etc.

  • Zomb

    IMHO you could bring a such “discussion” to a sane flow or alternatively to an abrupt ending by bringing the stupid questioner into the same situation with backfire of the kind not expected from a stranger. Like answering to the second round with “no, wrong guess… but by the way, how is your mother?”. … “and where does she come from?” …

  • IMKenny

    When I was being diagnosed with Asperger’s back in 2010, the psychologist said he could pick my wife’s accent as Australian (she is actually English, but came here at the age of 3) but he couldn’t pick my accent (I have lived in Sydney, where I was born, for all but two years of my life – and I am in my fifties).

    Having an “unusual” accent is a common characteristic of Aspies.