Accents - Névralgies (Or, The Sound of Fusion)

“Do you know what a foreign accent is? It's a sign of bravery.”
--Amy Chua

Olenoko contributor Cosmopolitan Griot (aka "Cosmo Griot") tells of accents and the pain of explaining them.

"Oh my, I love your accent!"

Heard more times than I can count.

And the other day, on an introductory conference call with my new colleagues, reference was made -- as ever -- to my "British accent” and its supposed ability to earn an 80% premium on any PR services rendered. I simply laughed and said, "If only!" regarding the revenue, and remarked that I hadn't lived in the UK for a long while.

So, have I held work permits for the UK? Yes. Have I done a bunch of short stints in London, both growing up and as an adult? Yes. Do I have more close family there than in any other country -- my home country, Ghana, included? Yes. Is my accent British? No.

No, sir, though you may think it is. My accent is...confused. Look across the Pacific, not the Atlantic. It actually started out Australian. So extremely Australian, in fact, that whenever my family went back to Ghana on holiday, my cousin would tease me for saying, "Thank ye, Weebee!" when I -- and apparently only I -- knew I was saying, "Thank you, Ruby!" So Aussie did this Ghanaian gal sound that watching old home videos makes me wince a bit.

While growing up in Papua New Guinea over 10 years, virtually all my teachers were Australians and New Zealanders. The odd British fixture or Sri Lankan relief teacher rounded out the staff. Since then, I have lived in Ghana, the United States, France, Spain, and Singapore, too. With the exception of stunning Singapore, which was too busy settling on an identity to waste any time on me, each of these "homes" has left an accentual imprint.

My "English" is a many-splendored thing. I code-switch to a Ghanaian accent like a true Ga woman, particularly when delivering a scolding. (I originally mastered the style in a desperate attempt to fit in at home after having been raised abroad. Now, as I am again abroad, code-switching serves as my magic pair of ruby shoes – three clicks of which place me instantly back home.)

When I am not going “GaGa” on you, if you listen closely, you’ll hear the occasional American "r" awarded to words that my subconscious thinks deserve it -- "jerk", for example. Fifteen years stateside, on and off (and braving airports and immigration), will do that to you.

When I returned to the US after a year in Spain, my sister's American husband complained that my intonation was “kind of off,” especially when I said, "I mean, come on!" And my pronunciation of "Madrid" will transport you there.

When it comes to French, at my parents' behest, my siblings and I began lessons soon after dropping our dummies (or pacifiers). The “proper” French way is the only way I pronounce all those Gallic words we have borrowed from chez eux -- much to my sister's chagrin. The great founding fathers of la Négritude would be none too pleased:

"Ma mère voulant d'un fils memorandum...

Vous ai-je dit ou non qu'il vous fallait parler français
le français de France
le français du français
le français français
parlez-moi du désastre

"My mother wanting a notable son...

Have I or have I not told you that you must speak French?
the French of France
the French of the French
the French French
Tell me about disaster
Tell me about it."

(English translation mine)

Excerpted from "Hoquet" (Hiccups), Pigments - Névralgies, Léon-Gontran Damas

(But here’s the thing, or the paradox, if you like: I believe that my native Ga should ideally be spoken the “proper” Ga way, as Gas speak it, not with an English twist or a French one or an Indian one, and that the same should go for every language -- except perhaps colonial ones. That’s a postcolonial-studies topic for another day, but maybe this averted "disaster" will keep Senghor, Césaire, and Damas from turning in their graves.)

Now, when people's eyes grow distant as I speak because they are trying to pinpoint my wandering accent, and they inevitably settle on "British" -- I still am tempted to flatly say, "No, just confused," and let the chips fall where they may. After a while, though, one grows weary of the debate and slightly peeved by the triumphant look on an interlocutor's face when she or he asks, "Have you lived in the UK?" and one has to reply, "Yes, but..."

But who has time for all that? “Ain't nobody got time for that!” Just ask Sweet Brown. Call the accent what you will. Therein lies a tale, and not one that everyone needs to hear.

An accent is, after all, just an accent, which is never really the substance of a thing.

What is the substance?

“Do you know what a foreign accent is? It's a sign of bravery.”
--Amy Chua, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother


"Not all those who wander are lost."
--J. R. R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring (The Lord of the Rings trilogy)

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