An accent is a telltale sound. The way we speak — the intonations, the cadence and what we emphasize — allude to where we come from.
For The Accent Effect — a CBC Toronto series looking at attitudes about accents — we spoke to three people who have navigated life in Toronto speaking with an accent. They talk candidly about the unsolicited observations, prying questions and memorable interactions.
First, listen closely. Then, tap the photo to see who that voice belongs to.
Newly arrived in Toronto, Peter Gouldborne got a callback for an IT job and set up a meeting with the recruiter.
He trekked out to Mississauga and waited in a parking lot for what felt like eternity to connect with the man.
They were on the phone, trying to pinpoint each other in the crowded lot.
"It went back and forth. I told him what I was wearing; told him the suit, the tie and everything. And he was pretty convinced I wasn't there," he said.
As the lot emptied, the recruiter got out of the car and approached Gouldborne.
"He looked at me pretty stunned, pretty shocked. And I said, 'Yes, I am Peter.'"
"What I think it is, is that I speak with a British accent and normally, people attribute a British accent with a white person."
"Because of the accent, he built up an image in his mind of what I probably looked like and then when he saw me, he kind of said, 'Hm, this was not exactly what I was expecting.'"
Despite the "case of mistaken identity," Gouldborne got the job.
"You can't trip and get mad over these situations. The best thing you can do is educate. It's not for me to lose it just because someone has a different view on someone with a different accent."
Roger Williams put down roots in Toronto with his wife and two daughters amid political instability back home.
"My dad thought we would be better off leaving that environment," he said.
After 25 years at a stainless steel manufacturing company, Williams bought a takeout joint at a Scarborough strip plaza.
"That's where we are until this day."
In order to best serve his predominately Jamaican customers, Williams would speak in Jamaican patois — as he learned growing up — which would both impress and confuse people.
"'Oh, my God! He speaks patois! That's cool!' That's coming from the Jamaican," he said.
"On the other hand, Canadians would say, 'Boy, you have a strong accent.' They didn't understand what I said. I either spoke too fast or the words are not what they expect. It sounds like English but it wasn't. That was the confusion."
Born in Westmoreland Parish, on the south side of Jamaica, Williams grew up straddling his Chinese and Jamaican identities.
Do you speak with an accent? How do you feel about it? How do others make you feel about it? Share your experience at firstname.lastname@example.org or call our VoxBox at 416-205-2595
"I grew up among 90 per cent local Jamaican people. As a result, we were afraid to speak Chinese as my grandmother taught us because we would be teased," he said. "So we lost our Chinese language. You don't use it, so you lose it kind of thing."
Williams recognizes the novelty for a listener but maintains: "If I speak like Jamaican, walk like Jamaican, I might be Jamaican!"
He adds that he must also contend with negative stereotypes.
"Speaking Jamaican is not always a pleasure for others to listen to because they relate the accent to other things… You're being labelled as something you might not be."
But Williams said speaking patois is a source of pride.
"I never forgot where I came from."
As a first-year university student, Camille Lam made a pact with herself to pronounce her name the authentic way, but that was short-lived.
"After three 'whats?' you're just tired of always saying 'Cah-may' so I just changed it to 'Cah-meal.'"
Lam said she is often peppered with questions about where she is from and the way she speaks.
"They all want to know the genealogy of my whole life," she said. "It does become frustrating to keep on answering the same questions all the time."
Lam's father is Chinese and her mother is French-Canadian so "I kind of look a little ambiguous," she said.
She finds the curiosity is two-fold: partly about the way she looks and partly about the way she sounds.
"My French accent comes in and comes out sometimes, especially, being in Toronto, where it's very English, it gets noticed. They start going into, 'Where are you from? Are you from Quebec?' No, Quebec isn't the only province that speaks French. We're everywhere."
Lam feels the Franco-Ontarian accent is treated differently than its Quebecois or Parisian counterparts.
"I went to a Franco-Ontarian school. We had to learn French. We had to keep our French. We also had to learn English. We try our best in both languages because our province asks us of those two languages, but it feels like we're not good enough for either one."
Photos by Paul Borkwood.
The Accent Effect is a CBC Toronto series looking at accents and how they might shape the way we are viewed by others and the way we view ourselves. Share your experience at email@example.com or call our VoxBox at 416-205-2595.