written with Luke Meddings
When my best friend needs to make me laugh, he puts on a funny accent. He has all these characters whose stories he tells. The stories are silly, funny, poignant and most of all very real – like something you’d overhear on a train or a bus or something you’d see at the other table at a restaurant. I love these stories and I love the accents he tells them in. These characters are so powerful because my friend conveys their personas through accent and through the register of discourse they use; it’s such fun because it’s experiment with language and we can’t predict which bits we’ll enjoy.
I was sitting in a professional meeting. We were discussing timetables and curriculum changes. At one point I said something about writing letters, and a colleague leaned over and said to me “could you say that again?” I said “what?” She said “letters”. I repeated confusedly “letters?” “There it is” she exclaimed with delight, “you DO have a Malaysian accent! I know Malaysian people and they say ‘letters’ like that too! Do you hear it, it’s the ‘t’ in ‘letters’..” I wasn’t really laughing at this point.
The thing is: I am not a brown-skinned person who has bemoaned injustice all my life. Far from it. I am a woman who has benefited from a high level of education and culture, especially when I compare myself to a lot of women around the world. I live and work in a country where I enjoy freedom to express my thoughts and freedom to raise and school my children. There is a line between my two anecdotes however. And I’m not sure I know how to draw it. With my best friend I fake an accent and we have a giggle, but call me on my default accent and I am insulted.
Am I a native English speaker? I have no idea. Probably not on paper. But wish me luck if I’m ever called upon to speak anything other than English to this level of fluency.
I grew up in a multilingual environment, dominated by English. The interchange between three to four languages on a daily basis was very common. I was schooled bilingually, before going to university in the UK. In the UK, within a few weeks, my English morphed from its lackadaisical Malaysian leisure to a firm imitation of Received Pronunciation because, like so many international students before and after me, I adjusted to my environment and wanted to gain entry into its deeper social structures.
People don’t take on new accents in new environments to show off the skill of doing so successfully. They take them on from the deep psychological need to belong to their social environment, they take them on as part of the experience of living on the cultural learning curve of adaptation and they take them on in the spirit of change and renewal. There is nothing wrong with this process and to criticise and insist on defaulting to a previous style of speech, is to deny a very human response of making home where you are.
Incidentally my colleague does not speak English as a mother tongue. She has however mastered it to an extremely high level of fluency and accuracy. I imagine that her own journey towards such perfection in a language was not one that was void of difficulty, embarrassment or compromise. But there was something very peculiar in her finding me out, because I have never denied my Malaysian-Indian roots, the mere sight of me speaks this fact. So what exactly made me feel so exposed?
Was it the fact that English was her second language and her calling me on my pronunciation, among the most sensitive of issues in language learning, made me feel somehow doubly threatened because I have spoken English all my life? Was it the simple inappropriate nature of it occurring in such a setting? Would I have found it funnier if we were enjoying an apéritif in a bar? I doubt it… Was it the being ‘found out’ having spent so much of my adult life progressively, and without any particular agenda, shedding my childhood style of speaking?
I don’t know. But I do know that language is power. And I lived that very acutely in this incident. And the English language is a general power that the whole globe has to contend with. And sadly, not all accents are equal and some Englishes are superpowers.
There is beyond this intimate and private game of code-shifting and experimentation another kind of game, more serious and more treacherous. This is a game in which we may find out or be found out in public, and it works in many directions and on many levels. As with many more innocent games, including that most morally tedious of board games, Monopoly, it is a game to do with power.
We can trace this game in the speech of the disenfranchised person who adapts their discourse to a more powerful or acceptable norm, but is forever at risk of disclosure – there are echoes in this of disguise, and of ‘passing’ in white society.
If this can be perilous, its opposite (revealing in mirror form how high are the stakes) is experienced as ridicule. Think of the English football manager Steve McClaren adopting features of Dutch pronunciation when giving a press conference as manager at FC Twente, or the English footballer Joey Barton taking on French inflections when interviewed as a player at Olympique de Marseille. Both were portrayed as absurd rather than emotionally intuitive or even merely polite, laying bare the vulnerability of the dominant culture, in this case linguistic, but at other times hegemonic – there are echoes in this of betrayal, and of ‘going native’.
And so we live in fear of slipping up, of revealing how well educated or how poorly educated we are, of showing our roots or betraying them; of that fatal lapse when, like Oscar Wilde when he denied kissing ’a peculiarly plain boy’, we find the ground of our adult construction suddenly slipping beneath us and others standing in line to judge or condemn.
We live in fear of our own clothes still bearing a price tag, or of the stitches in the mend coming loose. We glory in seeing others shown up or undone. But we must guard against this game of finding and being found out. S/he’ll never be one of us – unless we are all human beings, and mean what we sometimes say about tolerance and equality, in which case one and us are one and the same.
The games we play in private are not the same as the games we play in public. To pick on someone for an aspect of their accent is no different in essence from picking on them for the colour of their skin. It’s part of the minute manoeuvring for advantage which makes Monopoly so impossibly dull.
It’s what we say that counts, and before or beyond that it’s what we mean to say. Help each other to say it and we step out of the game and into the purposes of humanity.