La radio non è altro che la radio.
Published in the Royal College of Art magazine The Pluralist, January 2020.
or, ‘The radio is just the radio’ — a writing piece on how I tried to sound less Italian and more English
Most afternoons, six years ago, in the months running up to my moving day to London, I would tune into BBC Radio 1 as a listening exercise. I would come home from school, listen to the British broadcasters, and attempt to fish out words from what sounded like an endless stream of unintelligible blabbering. Occasionally, I would be halted by one of the then UK Top 40 songs ⎯ I only knew that’s what they were broadcasting because the web player had the generosity of displaying the title of the show. I would sit there, staring at nothing, listening. Inclusion was a strategy. My worthiness of living in the United Kingdom was inverse and proportional to the strength of my Italian accent. So the speaker on the BBC Radio 1 and I continued with our one-way conversations: I echoed his words, his intonation, even mimicked the facial expression I had imagined him to have. His Good afternoon was my personal test run of pronunciations: Good afternoon (too open, natural), Good afternoon! (enthusiastic ⎯ my consonants were still too sharp and defined), Good afternoon (smiling ⎯ gentler, better, curled at the end), Good afternoon (lower, rounder ⎯ closer, more British sounding?), Good afternoon (serious, even rounder ⎯ stereotypical, borderline comedic), Good afternoon (was that an attempt for Cockney?), and so on. I’d move on only when I’d reach a somewhat natural British sound.
Read this: Oh.
How did you read that? Was it a blunt O or a softer, open Ow? Or maybe a closed Ohw?
Try again with different intonations.
Think of the mouth as a house. From the at the top parallel to the tongue flooring the mouth ⎯ all fenced by the teeth and sealed by the lips. When speaking, all these elements work together: sound, like breath, lives and dies in the mouth — words end as they’re spoken, but they’re all born on different muscles reflecting a different pronunciation sound. In vocalisation and accent learning classes, the air in the mouth is sectioned in several spaces, including the nasal cavity. The sound, the accents and dialects, sit in one of those spots, or at their intersection. Learning this was like solving a life-long game of battleship; are your words in the middle of the tongue — on its body, closer to the throat — or are they right behind your upper teeth? Allow me to ask again: where are they from?
Linguists on the internet call letters lighter or darker, depending on where they live in the mouth. A consonant can be open or closed, lighter-sounding or deeper-sounding, narrow or wide. Apparently, the Australian accent lives right below your temples as the muscular tension does not allow for much movement. On the other hand, a generic North American accent will be hanging loosely from the jaw, demanding a fuller motion and a louder sound. When I explained this concept to my Irish friend, he showed me the emphasis of the chin in the Dubliner dialect and proceeded to push his chin forward and tilt his head back, almost like seeking a physical confrontation. The tension closed his speech. The generic British English, instead, is delicately placed on the lips. Gill from ‘Learn English with Gill (engVid)’ suggests pretending to hold a pencil in place between puckered lips to create the perfect British pronunciation, “or as if you’re about to kiss somebody!”, she says. I tried, I really did — without the pencil though, but still, I tried to uproot my system.
Try this: hum while keeping your lips sealed. Place your fingers on your throat and seek where the vibration is stronger. Curl the air into the mouth and keep humming until you can locate it. You can play with that sound and move it, too; for example, lower the tone of your humming and push that vibration towards your heart. Let it reverberate through your chest. Now take it back to your throat — this time we’ll take it upwards. Follow a scale of notes, let them be progressively higher and higher — carry the humming, let it rest in your mouth. I shift through languages by nudging that vibration, back and forth. Italian is a fishhook piercing the roof of my mouth and opening the sounds wide — my A is not an ay, but a loud snap: AH! ⎯ a zig-zagging line hitting the highs and lows in rapid successions. English, at least my version of it, is a weight that dangles between the edge of my tongue and my trachea, never truly falling. And so, I push it with the words, but I hear myself shyly whispering a wavy line with no true peak or depth to it. English is made of controlled trips and I take courage to allow it to fall onto itself — for example, the ‘O’ is a circle drawn as it is said, a quick rising and falling.
Try reading this again: Oh!
I have recently noticed that my name and surname are audibly symmetrical. They both have eight letters, four consonants and vowels alternating one another with a steady pronunciation rhythm. It’s really difficult, though, to pronounce them in English.
The accent falls on the same syllable of each word, too.
I drew my name and surname following the same pattern of my pronunciation. This is what they look like:
My first thought was that this heartbeat-looking squiggle could, perhaps, be an easier way to write my name, it could be a somewhat understandable guide on how to pronounce my name and make it “English-friendly”. I was Ludovica at first, then Vica, Vicky, then I settled on Ludo, my nickname in Italy. “Luda?” people attempt to say, and I usually correct them; I go by as Ludo, El-U-Dee-Oh, restoring my self-inflicted erasure by remaining Italian-sounding. Today I live in two different phonetic houses and the radio is just the radio.
1 Learn English with Gill (engVid) (n.d.). Learn British accents and dialects — Cockney, RP, Northern, and more!. [video] Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nDdRHWHzwR4 [Accessed 27 Oct. 2019].