Does your accent define you?

  • PublishedSeptember 3, 2014

‘You’re from Kenya? Wow! But you don’t even have an accent!’

Oh, boy…here we go again. Once you get used to hearing this phrase (try twice a week for a couple of months and it’s like you can read people’s minds before they become conscious of the thought) you would think it becomes easier to digest, or at least understand. But the more I hear it the more confused I get. Are they trying to compliment or insult me? Should I file the comment under harmless naiveté, or shameless ignorance?

I then have to take a deep breath and exert a lot of energy trying to prevent myself from rolling my eyes and tersely uttering any one of the following comments:

a)    Do you even know what a Kenyan accent sounds like? (Answer = No)

b)    Actually, I DO have an accent. And guess what? So do you! It’s called A-ME-RI-CAN. Crazy, huh?

c)     How about I throw some very British sounding words in there, will that convince you? (I would then go on to say; ‘Oh that’s RUBBISH!’ because everyone knows rubbish is a British word.)

d)    Wait a minute, if I don’t have an accent then what do I sound like? A robot? Oh my gosh, how come no one has ever told me I sound like a robot! (I would then burst into tears and go on to have an existential crisis/panic attack questioning whether I am indeed a robot or a Kenyan.)

This comment usually comes after I’ve been chatting with someone for a couple of minutes, perhaps sharing some details about my background: 100,000% Kenyan; born, raised and lived in Nairobi; spent time in boarding school in England; went to university here in the US; went back home to Nairobi and worked for one year; moved back to the US six years ago for my Masters; fell in love with NYC and now I’m a permanent resident here but still, and always will be, 100,000% Kenyan. At this point in the conversation I always make an effort to highlight how fortunate I am, recognizing that my background and experience is the result of being blessed with wonderful, tremendously hard working parents and the values they’ve instilled upon my siblings and me.

Nevertheless, I understand and thoroughly appreciate how fascinating such a varied background sounds, and is. And I do have to admit, the ability to defy expectations is kind of fun. But the question is, what do people expect? What do you expect when you hear someone who may or may not look different open their mouth? What do I expect when I talk to the multitudes of strangers everyday? That’s actually a pretty scary question.

To be clear, I’m referring specifically to expectations about who or what we are, predominantly based on the manner in which we speak not how we look. But the two are inherently intertwined; any expectations about how I speak will be based on how I look, i.e. a young black woman. I think we’re all very aware the expectations of being a young black anything are very, very complicated here in America; so I’m not going to go into that because I’m writing an article here, not a book. That said, in America, and especially here in New York, whether black, brown, yellow, white as rice or a little green around the edges, you can assume to be an American because race/skin color is no longer a distinction.

According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary an accent is: “a: an individual’s distinctive or characteristic inflection, tone, or choice of words… b: a way of speaking typical of a particular group of people and especially of the natives or residents of a region.” Do accents really matter? Well, yes they do; native speakers can detect a non-native accent in their language in less than 30 milliseconds and in speech played backwards, and babies as young as five months are able to perceive a foreign accent in the language that will become their native language. Clearly, we’re geared to pick up on the minute details of intonation, pitch, stress and tempo – basically the systematic organization of sounds in language (called phonemes), which differ from one dialect to the next.

As to why we care so much about how each of us sounds relative to ourselves, evolutionary biology claims the leading theory, reasoning that we evolved this sensitivity due to the importance of differentiating between members of one’s tribe and outsiders. Before our ancestors could hop on a British Airways flight, or cross-continental ship, or even a camel, their only contact was with neighboring tribes who, naturally, looked very alike.

Bear in mind that outsiders posed a very real threat (such as stealing food, land or resources) and the only way to tell the difference between a similar looking potential friend or foe was by how they spoke. There’s even evidence of this in the Bible: in the book of Judges, Hebrews identified their enemies, the Ephraimites – who could not make a “sh” sound (as in “shoe”) – by asking them to say “shibboleth.” Basically, man speak different = man is a threat. Man speak and look different? Forget about it. It’s like the old adage goes, ‘if it looks like a rat and sounds like a rat, it’s probably a rat. If it looks like a rat and sounds like a, I don’t know, donkey perhaps, it’s probably an alien. Whether rat/alien/rat-donkey your best bet is likely to run away. Fast.

All of this makes reasonable sense and shouldn’t be much of a surprise to most of us. But what evolved as an evolutionary prejudice has transformed into something far more complex and sinister. Numerous studies show that we instantly attach cultural stereotypes and subjective judgments about people’s knowledge and abilities from hearing their accent in speech. Individuals with a foreign accent (foreign to whichever native tongue) are perceived as less credible than native speakers. And not simply for being an outsider – known as the ‘fluency effect’ – we have the tendency to correlate the effort required to understand an accented utterance with the validity of said utterance. In other words you’re less likely to believe a fact (for instance, Kenya is the greatest country in the world) if a heavily accented Nigerian as opposed to a softly/neutral accented Nigerian speaks it.

Then there are sub-conscious inferiority complexes some populations are yet to shake off due to a history of colonialism or generations of discrimination and disfranchisement. For example, Americans have a strange love affair with British accents. Perhaps the least exotic of all accents to you, but speak British to an American and you’re pretty much guaranteed instant attention and/or a marriage proposal. Here in the US, Southern accents have a particularly bad rap, in part because people who talk faster are generally perceived as more intelligent and Southerners tend to drawl. And because high social status and the ‘people who are in charge’ are associated with the less affected Northern accent, which is so ingrained that even Southerners themselves think they sound dumber!

Perhaps most alarming, in my opinion, is that a 2011 study found that in categorizing people, a person’s accent carried more weight than even visual cues to ethnicity. Think about how surprised you may be to discover a rapper who clearly sounds ‘black’ is actually Caucasian, or to experience an Asian with a strong French accent. Which is exactly what I’ve long experienced, constantly being taken aback by how surprised people (primarily, but not only Americans) seem to be when trying to piece together my looks, my background and how I sound. Are they surprised that I am an ‘other’ despite not looking or sound so? Akin to an alien hiding in plain sight? Or is it the fact that I am so clearly an ‘other’ based on my background, name, and possibly looks, but yet I sound just like they do? You mean to say that not all people who are different actually sound different? Then how are we meant to tell who is one of us and who isn’t?

In all of this, the catch-22 I run into occurs, ironically, when I come home to my fellow 100,000% Kenyans. Having to convince your tribesmen, and women, that you really, really are just like them is, well, disorienting. ‘But you don’t sound, or look, Kenyan!

Oh boy…maybe it’s time I have a very serious conversation with my parents about the possibility that they’ve being lying to me my entire life and that I am, in fact, actually a robot…

Published in September 2014

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