Accent on privilege

An American couple, a New Zealand couple, an Irish couple, and an Anglo-Indian couple walk into a bar. It sounds like the beginning of a joke, right? But actually it’s how we spent a good part of our afternoon yesterday, sitting in a bar with the aforementioned three couples, listening to music, singing karaoke, and just generally having fun. The one small fly in the ointment was that the announcer for karaoke was apparently from the north of England and therefore utterly incomprehensible to everyone at our table. One of our Kiwi friends leaned over and reassured me, “At least I can understand your accent!”

Wait. I have an accent?

In fairness, it’s not the first time someone has referred to my accent. Mark and I have been participating in a weekly study group run by the church we attend here. A couple of weeks ago the leader asked if either Mark or I would read the scripture. I quipped, “Are you sure you can understand our accents?” The very kind group members quickly answered that they could and that, in fact, they thought our accents were very cute. My first thought was, this is coming from people who pronounce the longest of the prophetic books in the Bible as “Eye-zeye-ah!” But I read and, mulling it over later, realized that accent, like beauty, appears to be in the eye of the beholder. Or in this case, the behearer.

Now, let’s be realistic: Henry Higgins may have been fictional, but he knew a truth about human beings. Our speech goes a long way towards defining us, and people learn about us from how we speak, as well as what we say. He also knew that the English have accents. The accents may run the gamut from sexy to annoying, but they exist. In all fairness, the English also have some very handy words. Take “sort” as an example. You can sort something by fixing it, buying it, reserving it, arranging it, dealing with it, or figuring it out. That’s a handy verb, and I’m all on board with sorting. However, they also have their odd words. One group in the congregation here solicited items for a tombola. God and the English only know what that is. And, sadly, there is no “English to American” setting on Google Translate.

But I digress. Back to accents. This whole question of accents rings my bell partly because of my mother, God rest her soul. A dearer, more loving, more accepting person you’d be hard pressed to find. But among her few prejudices was a deep seated dislike of Southern accents. (This no doubt complicated life with my father, who spoke with a pronounced Southern accent. But, as they say, not my monkeys, not my circus.) A native of Wisconsin, Mom was dragged from her beloved home state at the vulnerable age of 13 and was plunked down in the middle of a junior high class in Austin, Texas. She noticed two things immediately. One, all of the girls had two names (Emily Ann, Sarah Elizabeth, Mary Lee – you know the drill). Second, all of the girls had Southern accents of the kind that allowed them to say, “Bless her heart, (insert insult here).” Mom did adjust and make some lovely friends, but the experience left scars. So when my siblings and I were growing up, we learned to speak like Mom and eschewed practices such as dropping the g off -ing words and speaking as though we were getting paid by the syllable. (“Cay-un y’all pah-us the jay-um?” is actually a breakfast sentence composed entirely of one-syllable words, in my world.)

Now over the years, I’ve softened on this issue. I’ve adopted “y’all” because English neglected to add an analog for “vosotros” (second person plural, informal) when it went on its periodic linguistic raids into German, French, Spanish, and every other tongue it ever encountered. I also don’t automatically assume that people with southern accents secretly mourn the failure of Pickett’s charge at Gettysburg. But I’ve clung stubbornly to my nondescript American speech. All of those years of trying to sound like Walter Cronkite were not wasted effort. And yes, I do know that Walter Cronkite was from Texas. I rest my case.

So when English speakers here tell me I have an accent, it’s still a bit of a shock. And I’ve realized that this is the shock you feel when you recognize your privilege. To me, how I speak was the norm. It was more than the norm; it was how you spoke correctly. Other manners might be charming but were slightly off plumb. But I’ve been booted, firmly but lovingly by my Kiwi and English friends, out of my pronunciation comfort zone. I recognize that my accent is a piece of how I experience privilege, and I want this realization to open me up and make me more aware and more open minded. I hope I’m a better person for that realization. I hope it helps me recognize all of the other privileges I take for granted.

I’ll let you know as soon as I sort that one.

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