A funny thing happened to me on the way to the store. Nursing a craving for sushi, I was heading down to the nearest Sushi Shop for a twelve-piece combo when, as I was about to go inside, a cute-but-not-overly-handsome stranger stopped me and asked me for directions.
"Excuse me, Miss," he said, "Do you know the way to Saint Denis?"
As he uttered those words, I felt a warm tingly feeling running down my spine. In my eyes, he had been transformed into the most attractive man ever. It wasn't what he said, it was how he said it-with a thick Russian accent.
"Um...it's that way," I replied, pointing in the general direction.
"Thank you very much," he said, politely tipping his hat.
Then, like a Bolshevik with capitalist leanings, he was gone. As "Lara's Theme" played over in my mind, I contemplated foregoing my miso soup and green tea for a bowl of borscht and a glass of vodka.
I don't know exactly why the Russian accent turns me on. Maybe it has to do with my Eastern European roots, which lie somewhere between the Romanian and Hungarian border-all I know is that there was something rugged yet melodic in the way they pronounce their vowels. The Russian accent sings a bittersweet song of oppression and high culture and in one moment, this unassuming stranger became a cross between Tevye dancing the Hora in "Fiddler on the Roof" and Mikhail Baryshnikov dancing for rubles in "White Nights."
What attracts people to each other? Obviously, we're first attracted by what (or who) we see. We all have a "type" of guy or girl that we usually go for, and many of us still believe in love at first sight. It's also partially a chemical thing. Pheromones-chemical substances secreted by living organisms-can transmit certain messages to other members of the same species. Theoretically, our pheromones are supposed to attract us to one another and are picked up through our sense of smell.
That takes care of sight and smell-but what role does sound play in the game of attraction? It's more important than we think.
Foreign accents are like music to our ears (sometimes)
My theory is this: In the same way that we all like different types of music for their particular melodies, rhythms and tones, we are drawn to the melodies of certain accents. Portuguese, Spanish, Italian, French and Romanian-the classic Romance languages-are "romantic" precisely because the words roll off the tongue. Syllables are overemphasized and words are said with passion. The most ordinary sentences seem to be sung instead of spoken. I don't know anyone who wouldn't like to be serenaded once in a while.
But it's more complicated than that. We all form cultural associations with certain accents that can either make or break them for us. For example, although I know it's a Romance language, I do not love the French accent from France. I'm sorry, but I just don't-it's too high-brow for its own good. There's an arrogance and snootiness to it that just doesn't go away, no matter how hard a French-speaker tries. The French accent conjures up images of aggressive waiters and snobby schoolboys sporting $300 Lacoste sweaters and saying words like "dingue" and "effectivement" while smoking stinky Gauloises cigarettes. Not very sexy.
The rarer the accent, the better
We in Montreal are very "accent-spoiled"-not only do we have the French/English thing going on, but cultural minorities make up 30 percent of the city's population. In my neighborhood, I hear Spanish, Portuguese, Greek, Italian and Yiddish (to name a few) spoken nearly as much as English or French. Hearing different accents and foreign languages is just a part of everyday life here, so it takes a lot to impress us.
I had to go halfway around the world to discover my love of certain accents. A few years ago, while I was travelling around Australia, I discovered the quirky sexiness of the Irish accent. I was at some cheesy bar in the resort town of Airlie Beach when I met my first Irishman -I couldn't understand half the things he was saying to me; I just wanted him to keep talking. I soon discovered that Australia was full of talkative travelling Irishmen-I had hit my pot of gold.
Along with my love of the Irish, I discovered the very particular New Zealand accent, which sounds almost exactly like Australian to the untrained ear. After a few months down under, I prided myself in being able to tell the difference.
After the novelty wore off, I had a lingering soft-spot for both New Zealanders and Irishmen. They're both the underdogs-oppressed or overshadowed by bigger, more powerful countries-and both have an unparalleled sense of pride and affection for their homelands. I soon found out that it's not only the accent that matters but what it represents.
Everyone loves what they don't have
We love accents because they make us think of foreign lands and different cultures-we see things we're not used to as being exotic and mysterious. We also love when people make an effort to speak our native language. Apparently, French Canadian guys just can't get enough of Anglophone girls speaking French-or trying to. While we think we sound ridiculous, they think we're being cute and coy. Hmm... it's something to think about next time you're too shy to talk to that hot French Canadian guy you've been eyeing at the coffee shop.
But, as the song goes, you can't always get what you want. The joy and pain of exotic and rare accents are that they pop up randomly-you just never know when that stranger from a strange land will appear out of nowhere, asking for directions.
Wanna find out which accents push your buttons? Visit the Speech Accent Archive - it's an ongoing effort of the linguistics department of George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia. This huge database contains about five hundred samples of the speech patterns of native and non-native speakers of English from around the world. The extensive list deconstructs accents from Afrikaans to Zulu... you might discover which accents make you shiver...
Daisy Goldstein shares her quirky insights on life in the city. Her column appears every two weeks. Read more columns by Daisy Goldstein.