The Murphy Ultimatum

It’s her or me. There’s not room in this city for both of us. Either she goes, or I go. End of story.

I’m not one usually given to ultimatums. Personal history had taught me that in the war between either and or, or usually wins. And if or wins, I lose. So I go quietly along my way, occasionally raising my head above the parapet when I come across something untenable. And when the untenable moves further up the alphabet and becomes unbearable, I leave. Or I quit. Or I declare the person responsible persona non grata. But I don’t resort to ultimatums.

In his Devil’s Dictionary, my old friend Ambrose Bierce defines an ultimatum as ‘a last demand before resorting to concessions’. But I’m way beyond conceding. This woman’s presence is driving me demented.

Putting credibility at stake

You know of whom I speak? The new voice of BKV. The one that tells you to connect here for Metro Line 1, 2 or 3. Or for the railways. Or for the suburban railways. Let’s be clear: I have nothing against the woman personally – whoever she is. I’m sure she’s a lovely person who is doing what she can to earn a forint or two in a city where ready money doesn’t come easily. What I am objecting to is BKV’s decision to have a non-Hungarian announcer on its transport system.

I didn’t come to Hungary to hear the dulcet tones of a British announcer over the PA system. Yes, it helps to hear it in English, but give me good old accented English any day. I’m in Hungary. I’m not in the UK. I don’t need the added grief of having to double-check my whereabouts every time this petal makes an announcement.

Holding hypocrisy at bay

How hypocritical, I hear some of you say. Am I not the one first in line to complain about the incorrect use of English in this fair city of ours? Am I not the one who finds it difficult to trust the quality of food in a restaurant that offers chicken stripes and cucumber soap on the menu? Am I not the one waging a none-too-silent war against apostrophe abuse? Én vétkem, én vétkem, én igen nagy vétkem. I am guilty on all three counts.

Ergo, shouldn’t I be happy that the BKV has seen fit to partially compensate for the less-than-stellar English it used to feature on its notices and signs by employing a native-English speaker to make announcements …  in English?

Perhaps. But I’m not. I feel robbed. I feel cheated. I feel misled. And, of course, this somewhat irrational response to what researchers would credit to be a move in the right direction – i.e. the main road to credibility – has me second-guessing myself.

Rationalising with research

A couple of years ago, researchers from the University of Chicago (Shiri Lev-Ari and Boaz Keysar), ran some experiments testing the correlation between credibility and the difficulty in understanding a non-native speaker. They talk of ‘processing fluency’ and ‘processing difficulty’. In a nutshell, they posit that most non-native speakers have an accent and that having an accent could make them seem less credible for two reasons:  (1) The accent is a signal that the speaker ‘doesn’t belong’ and (2) it makes the speech harder to process.  In the case of an accent being a signal, the researchers say that it is the prejudice of the listener and not the accent itself that impacts credibility. This I can buy. They also say that people tend to believe non-native speakers less because they are simply more difficult to understand. mmmm… I wonder.

So, back to her nibs on the tram.

Discovering what lies beneath

Her English is perfect (even if her hammed pronunciation of Moritz Zsigmond tér grates on my usually deaf nerves). Her accent is native. Her speech is faultless. And yet I have trouble believing that I’m in Budapest and that if I get off at Ferenc Korut (oops, I meant Corvin Negyed), I can connect to Metro Line 3. Why do I find this so irritating?

Given that some Hungarians speak more accurate English than many native-English speakers I know, I just can’t see the sense in this. Not being one to shy away from a little navel gazing, I devoted a full 13 minutes to figuring out what was at the root of my antipathy. And it’s simple…really. Borrowing an analogy from a wise man I met recently in Palm Springs, I don’t want Europe (and Hungary) to go the way of the American melting pot where cultures combine to form a hybrid and no-one is really sure who they are any more. I would rather see it adopt Canada’s mosaic approach: individual countries forming a lovely picture, each retaining its individuality. Let’s not cross the narrow line between assimilation and obliteration.

First published in the Budapest Times 31 August 2012

Hat tip to Craig at Clearing Customs for alerting me to this study.

0 replies
  1. Cecile
    Cecile says:

    Odd isn’t it? I was pondering about the same thing in the tram a few days ago. 😉 This voice coming over to make the announcement is like a bad collage to me. Very odd indeed. But you put it so well in your article.

  2. Tim Child
    Tim Child says:

    I loved that warm voice on the tram. The English language is not on BKV for the benefit for the English. There are only a few of us here. It is for all those who do not speak Hungarian. It sounds like I am on a tram in Ipswich now, not Budapest. Is it through some mistaken belief that only someone from England can speak English? We all know the Irish do it much better. The place names now seem very strange. Bring back that lovely warm Hunagrian voice. After all that it is the way that Hungarian women speak ENglish that drew so many expat men here in the first place.

  3. Bernard Adams
    Bernard Adams says:

    It reminds me of my days in Berlitz School. There was a poster saying ‘I don’t want to speak French – I want to speak English like Charles Boyer’.

  4. Craig
    Craig says:

    Glad to pass on the research. Thanks for the hat tip.
    In Taipei, the English voice on the subway often spoke place names following foreigners’ mispronunciation rather than the way they were pronounced by the locals. She was not a good Chinese tutor.


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