Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Dotcom, German accents and Volkner.

I have often wondered what Carl Sylvius Volkner's voice sounded like. Given he was German by birth, but a naturalised British/New Zealand citizen he must have sounded - well, German, to Pakeha ears. (Though probably not to Maori who may have just considered his English a variation on many different regional English accents - Cornish, Yorkshire, 'received' English - as well as Scots, Irish and their regional variants.) 

Maori of course was spoken with different regional variants as well, so Aotearoa New Zealand in the 19th century was a true polyglot of sounds. A clatter of accents, you might say. 

The strange thing is when concentrating on writing, your mind expands and becomes this amorphous blotting paper-like substance. Subconsciously you are always listening. I think this is what makes writing a long piece so exhausting in the end. Even while sitting with your partner, vegging out watching crap television - some part of your mind is in this darkened room, in which you are staring at a page.

I actually like this addiction to thinking and at the moment I feel really engaged in writing this current book. (This is despite the fact the physical act of stooping and writing is physically damaging my body. I have to have another carpel tunnel operation next month.)
But I thought to myself yesterday I actually love spinning out the yarn of this story.

But in this every-present 'listening' mode - you become frightened of missing a clue, a hint, a mere fragrance of thought - I began to hear Dotcom's accent and suddenly, when I read some of Volkner's letters, I started hearing Dotcom's use of English. 

By this I mean its literal nature - he speaks English in a more literal, even carefully enunciated way than many slack 'English' speakers. But there is also the flock wall of a Germanic inflection. It is not unpleasant at all but requires a careful kind of listening to interpret. (Compare John Key's effeminate enunciation of 's's - a sibilance which has become a generic male way of speaking in NZ, as well as his constantly swallowed vowels: this is a man embarrassed at speaking the intensely powerful and muscular language of English.)

But suddenly I understood: Dotcom's English was how Carl Sylvius Volkner's voice would have sounded. The actual timbre may be different. For example Dotcom has that airy elephant footprint of an overweight person - a tiny voice, thin and silvery. Volkner's voice may have had more lower keys to it. But look at this letter, written in December 1863 by Volkner.

Ms-0069-03 Volkner to William Williams Alexander Turnbull Library

Here he is describing - from a letter written in Opotiki - how he believes the missionaries at Tauranga have unnecessarily evacuated from the site during the vicious land wars. He believes they could have stayed, and that local Maori wanted them to stay and would have defended them. (This may have been so but it was also a misreading which had fatal consequences on his own life.)

But what interests me are three misspellings.
One is 'entreaded' for entreated.
Two is 'prodection' for protection.
The other is 'defent' for defend.

All these words, I believe, he was writing down following on the sounds in his own head.
If you say them over using Dotcom's accent you will get a pretty accurate inflection of the way Carl Sylvius may have talked.
Big deal, I hear you say.
But to the omniscient mind of the writer - the eternal blotter - it is of some importance.
Just as the pronunciation of Volkner itself. (I am sorry I cannot put the two dots over the 'o' which should belong there.)
I was talking online to a new acquaintance, Wendy French who is also very interested in the whole Opotiki tragedy and she said she understood Volkner was pronounced "Fuurlk - ner - very subtle rather than the Kiwi puke-gulp."
This fascinated me, as we attribute feelings to sounds - and names, especially personal names, can take on a whole inflection of feelings, moods - distaste or warmth. So the choice with Volkner is to produce a softer sound, almost like the whirr of a wood pigeon's wings in flight - fuurlk-ner. Or you can choose the ugly 'puke-gulp'.

For myself to get the right accent I think you have to hear in your head the fairy elephant footprint of a certain naturalised German New Zealand citizen….Thanks Dotcom (a man whose naturalised birth-name is removed from our sight.) 


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