What’s that accent?

The politics of dialect, accent and language can be powerful, othering, and bizarre.

“Where are you from?”

I can’t think of a more loaded question that I get asked living abroad. It’s a really common thing to ask people when you first meet them. The trouble is, it’s not a question that ever stands on its own. It’s backed with its own collection of perceptions, stereotypes, and forms of measurement. Of course, much of the time people just want to know what country I grew up in, but sometimes they’re looking for something else. Sometimes they want to pin down my appearance, or the way I speak. Sometimes they want me to identify myself – or they want to identify me on my behalf. Sometimes that’s really hard for me to do, and it is always hard to listen to someone doing it for me.

Sounds of a history

Teaching English as a foreign or second language to people allows me to take an inordinate amount of time to turn words, phrases, and sounds around in my head. Not only do my students ask me to explain the inner workings of the English language to them on a daily basis, but my co-workers and I talk at length about how to best approach such a challenge. During a workshop a few months back, a co-worker was explaining the finer points of a theory on how to approach teaching English. One of the points focused on how pronunciation, accent, and dialect are so deeply connected to a student’s identity. The workshop was about teaching English in a classroom, but the entire idea of one’s identity being tangled up with the sounds they make stuck like a splinter in my brain. It made me think of all the categorizing I’ve had to patiently sit through as people I’ve met have tried to dissect the way I speak. Depending on who was listening, the categories range wildly: Newfie, Canadian, foreigner, sister, uneducated, hilarious, so-much-easier-to-understand-than… The list is long and pointless, considering the frequency with which it changes. But underlying all of this are the parts that bother me. If my voice is part of who I am, and how I identify myself as fitting into the world, then do I become what the listener thinks I am? And what if the label they give me is something I despise?

Square peg, round hole

To be completely honest with you, I don’t sound much like I did a decade ago. Back then, I lived in the middle of Newfoundland and every single person in my life had the exact same accent and dialect. Then, I moved away and edges fell off bit by bit. Vowels stretched into new shapes, phrases that didn’t culturally make sense outside of Newfoundland and Labrador faded from use, and a listener-friendly cadence replaced the rapid-fire speed my vocal muscles were used to producing. Woven into the way I speak are an awful lot of sound effects, thanks to years of teaching very young children who found it terribly entertaining. And just in case that wasn’t confusing enough, impressions (to varying degrees of success) are littered throughout each conversation I have just because I’m good at them and they prevent boredom.

Rarely am I surprised when people squint at me, tilt their heads, and try to work out where I’m “from”. I don’t sound much like anything in particular. I don’t expect anyone to be able to glean much from a chat with me, other than that I’m North American. What really really burns my soul is when people ask me where I’m from, and then try to shape what I say into whatever form they’ve got waiting for such a title.

“Oh, you’re Canadian… yeah… a-boot. A-boooot.” Right, that’s Western Canada.. not Eastern. Valiant effort, though.

“Newfie, eh? How is SHE goin’? Haha!” Ugh. It was “goin'” a lot better before I made the fantastically poor decision of chatting with you.

Perhaps one of the most bothersome reactions I get is the one that “others” me. When I go back to Newfoundland to visit my family and someone wants to know why I don’t sound like a Newfie. When I say something at work and my British manager tells me I sound “foreign” and I’m expected to laugh because isn’t it hilarious that I’m weird/different/wrong. When I—quite politely I think—bend my choice of words and slow down my speech to suit someone else in a conversation with my partner (also a Newf), and then that person winds up telling me I don’t sound Canadian enough to please them (in so many words). At the risk of stating the obvious, I’ve grown weary of not meeting the tired expectations others have of what I “should” sound like. I’ve grown weary of re-identifying who I am after I’ve disappointed them by not being enough of whatever it was they wanted to hear.

Cha-rae-de? Cha-rah-de.

I guess that’s the crux of it – the othering. The way I sound is a collection of where I’m from, where I’ve been, my career, my personality, my history, my stories all rolled into my voice. When someone pulls me up on something I say, they start picking at who I am and that makes me very annoyed. I’m not referring to the comparisons my friends and I have about how we say this or that — those conversations are extremely fun and funny. I’m referring to that ‘you’re-different-ergo-you’re-wrong’ tone that gets nonchalantly tossed into the conversation and uncomfortable seconds tick past as I don’t dutifully acknowledge that I’ve mispronounced a word my opponent wanted to hear differently. In an article this size, there isn’t room to get into the politics and history of accent and dialect. It’s fascinating and sensitive, and I eagerly await the opportunity to write about it.

In a shrinking world where people move around with increasing frequency, the struggle to call a geographical place home is enough. It is hard to muster the energy to try and find out what you’re supposed to sound like based on what your conversation partner wants you to be. My voice isn’t the town typed on my birth certificate. I don’t sound like a place on a map. The truth is, I sound like my sister when I laugh, like a cartoon rocket ship when I’m teaching my kiddies, and about five different people when I’m telling a story properly. And none of those things could ever be wrong.

Editor’s note: If you would like to respond to an article on TheIndependent.ca or address an issue we haven’t yet covered, we welcome thoughtful and articulate Letters to the Editor. You can email yours to: justin(at)theindependent(dot)ca. Not all letters will be printed, but all will be read.

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