Published on 27 Nov 2012 Sections , ,

Joey Barton’s French accent: sign of a sophisticated mind?

Joey Barton az been tawkeen weev ze accent francais, burrt why doze ee do zis?

The video of Joey Barton, speaking with a French accent at a press conference after his debut match for Olympique de Marseille, has become an internet sensation, much as the video of Steve McLaren speaking in a Dutch accent did before.

Barton has been on Twitter laughing about the interview as well, greeting followers on Tuesday morning with the catchphrase from 1980s TV comedy Allo, allo: “Good moaning” (see tweet, below).

But the interview itself and Barton’s accent say a couple of positive things about the sometimes controversial footballer’s attitude and abilities, one psycholinguistics expert has told Channel 4 News.

Dr Dominic Watt, a senior lecturer in language and linguistic science at University of York, analysed the press conference for Channel 4 News and found that there are some “sophisticated” uses of language taking place.

“It’s not just an accent, he’s also changing his grammar in interesting ways,” he said. “He’s seems to avoid using anything but the present tense and he’s missing the endings off verbs in interesting ways. But you also get the impression of something that is still recognisably Merseyside.”

He added that with pronunciation “a lot of what is going on is under the surface”.

He’s got some quite subtle things right. Dr Dominic Watt

Dr Watt said examples of things that Barton is doing include pronouncing the letter “T” clearly, even though in the Liverpudlian dialect it often takes on more of an “S” quality, as in the Merseyside pronunciation of water, and avoiding glottal stops. However, the Liverpudlian use of “K” in words like “make” and “break” remains.

But he is not just avoiding “Liverpudlianisms”, Dr Watt said, he is also adding French accents to words. One example is the use of the “kit vowel” – exemplified by pronouncing the word “ship” as “sheep”.

Joey Barton (Getty)


Dr Watt said: “He is doing things that are quite typical of English people trying to help non-native speakers understand, such as avoiding things that he maybe knows are provincialisms, Liverpudlianisms.

“But he is also doing some things that are quite typical of French people trying to speak English and he’s got some quite subtle things right.”

Barton has been perhaps helped out by his exposure to French players in the English leagues, such as Armand Traore and Djibril Cisse at Queen’s Park Rangers, the club which is currently loaning him to Marseilles.

“He’s clearly heard enough French-accented English to know what it sounds like, but he is also able to translate that into his own speech production – sending it back in the opposite direction.”

Dr Watt added that what Barton is doing is “sophisticated in cognitive terms”. He said that this kind of ability does not require any formal training, and is something that some people can do and others struggle with. He said it is often found in people with an “ear for music”.

He also said that it appears that the accent could be happening on both a conscious and a subconscious level – saying Barton’s use of verbs “does not seem like an automatic reflex”, but that his emphasis on certain vowels appears to be more subtle.

Why is he doing this?

Dr Watt said there are a number of reasons why Barton could be doing this. One is a part of what is known as “accommodation” – trying to close the distance between oneself and others. For a player who has had a sometimes turbulent relationship with the English media, could this be a sign that he wants a new closeness with the French press?

It could also imply a lack of arrogance, Dr Watt said. “It could be his way of saying ‘I’m not comfortable with just assuming that everyone is going to speak English'”, he said. “It is like he is trying to find an optimally compatible way to speak that will ease communication with his fellow players and management”.

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