Joey Barton and “French-English Accents”

By now, I suspect many readers have watched Liverpudlian footballer Joey Barton‘s recent interview about his French debut. I have little to say about his accent, other than to remind everyone that this native Englishman has spent but a few months in France:

Although most headlines have cited the man’s “French accent,” the interview’s strangest aspect is not the accent, per se, but rather grammatical “errors” typical of ESL learners, such as Barton’s notable failure to conjugate verbs like “say,” “make,” and “speak.” I’ll leave it up to you to decide why.

There are many legitimate situations, it should be said, in which living in a foreign country can impact one’s speech. However, I’ve found such influences more modest than in Barton’s case. For instance, I’ve noted a subtle French influence on Johnny Depp‘s English (he lived in France for many years):

(I also considered embedding a recent Halle Berry interview here, in whose lect I’d noticed a slight Gallic twinge; she is engaged to French actor Olivier Martinez and has announced intentions to move to France. But on second consideration, I think the jury’s out on that one. Feel free to look up clips and decide for yourself.)

I’ve experienced this phenomenon personally as well. I once had a coworker who spent a long sojourn in Cuba. On her first months back in the States, her accent betrayed a slight  Spanish rhythm. Within a short period, however, her speech returned to that of a native English-speaker.

My impression is that such effects are most noticeable when the language in question has strikingly different prosodic patterns from English’s. Such is the case with French (which lacks lexical stress) and Spanish (which is syllable-timed.) When speaking a romance language, I find myself retraining my brain to produce syllables in a very different way than my English-speaking mind is accustomed to. Such efforts no doubt have an impact on one’s own language over a prolonged period.

Still, I remain confused by the extremity of Barton’s new idiolect. Is this truly how he talks?


About Ben

Ben T. Smith launched his dialect fascination while working in theatre. He has worked as an actor, playwright, director, critic and dialect coach. Other passions include linguistics, urban development, philosophy and film.
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8 Responses to Joey Barton and “French-English Accents”

  1. Marc Leavitt says:

    I recall a friend who spent two years in the Air Force in the deep south. When he returned to New Jersey, he brought the south back with him. It was not a conscious assumption of a different dialect.

  2. I think the fact that Barton says “everybody make” and then “nobody makes” makes it pretty clear he’s consciously faking a French accent. Maybe to sound cool?

    Speaking on “syllable-timed,” have you done a blog on intonation? I’d love to learn more about that.

  3. Josh McNeill says:

    I certainly don’t have the expertise in this thing to know what’s going on but my guess would be it’s an issue of code-switching. In that sense, he could have arrived in France one day before the interview and still had a problem if he was speaking French all the way up to the time when the interview started. I’ve personally had instances where I faltered on my native English use after being in Spanish mode for a bit as in using “of” when I mean “about” or “on” because of the different mapping for the use of “de” in Spanish. It seems like the more nuanced features of a language’s syntax and morphology could be the most prone to this problem, too, which would explain why he screwed up on things like make/makes instead of making gross mistakes like saying, “How do you call…,” when he means, “How do you say….”

    I’d be interested in what people have to say about the phonetic qualities of his speech in the interview, though. I was trying hard to find notable French influences like [zæt] for /ðæt/ but every time something seemed strange I couldn’t tell if it was because I’m not familiar enough with the dialect in Liverpool.

  4. boynamedsue says:

    He’s working in a situation where he needs to make himself understood by people through English, as he speaks little French. Full speed grammatical English is beyond most French people, but quite a few people can understand slow careful speech.

    Barton is actually communicating in an exceptionally effective way for the situation in which he finds himself, his English is perfectly tailored to the people he uses it to speak with. The difficult vowels have been shifted to French equivalents, past tenses and 3rd person conjugations have been scrapped, all things which are unnecessary for meaning but cause listeners problems.

    All in all it works better than how most Brits talk to foreigners, loudly using as many phrasal verbs as possible.

    That or he’s taking the piss.

    • Danny Ryan says:

      Yes, I fully agree with what you say here. I’ve noticed that English native speakers in Vienna will try and emulate some features of Viennese-German accented L2 English to make themselves understood better, whereas with other native English speakers they’ll switch back to native speed, accent and intonation.

  5. Qaoileann says:

    I’ve experienced this as well, but between dialects. I’m Irish living in England and I find I speak with English-English rhythms unless I’m around Irish people. I find it very disconcerting but no-one else has ever remarked on it.

    Just curious, for those who think Barton was’ putting it on’, what was he hoping to gain by it?

    • Kent James says:

      I don’t know about him, but I’m not hoping to gain anything when I put on a different accent. I just do it for shits and giggles.

  6. Gonfal says:

    That is one of the stranger things I’ve heard. I looked up a video of him talking pre-france, and there’s a huge difference. I’d go along with the theory that he’s getting used to packaging english in a french-oriented manner – using myself as an example, when I speak to my german relatives, and my german sucks, they understand me much much better when I speak english with a german accent and german phrase order. Even though I feel ridiculous as all hell, it’s a viable strategy.