No such thing as a neutral accent

April 30, 2006 / How did he do it? I demanded to know. His reply: “You only lose it if you want to, mate.”

Jefe’s latest post, Classless, is poignant:

At the end of the day, the latter habits of class aren’t just my habits, they’re my values. And I’m frightened that I, too, might slowly come to adulterate them with the habits and values of the velvet rope. Everyone at Studio 54 seems to have been touched by them. And if I take Liza’s advice, if I march my way into the legal academy, won’t it happen to me, too?

It reminds me vividly of a different, though related, problem: losing your accent. The awareness of my own manner of talking as a specific accent started to grow on me the minute I landed at JFK Airport with my father four years ago, and we had to hail a cab—a simple task that was more difficult than I had imagined, and in the following days I quickly learned that it wasn’t fun to be constantly repeating myself or to be searching for comprehensible variations on mundane speech. This conundrum is a good metaphor, I think, for what Jefe is writing about, because the question of accents and the question of class values are both basic questions of belonging. They are also, at least partially, dependent upon each other.

When I was a kid I would occasionally meet another child who’d spent a little time in the United States. Sometimes it was military service that took his or her family abroad, other times an American parent. But almost inevitably junior came back to school talking like a Yank. It was the funniest thing. Usually what happened was that some of the other kids would find this cool for a while, but eventually a critical mass of people (and I’m talking about primary school kids here) would become infuriated. The pretension communicated around each rolled “r” (as opposed to “ahh”) or a conspicuous “zee” (instead of “zed”)—acquired after just a month or two in the U.S.—quickly became too much, and the moral majority would basically bully the kid back into an Australian accent.

(This will probably happen to me the minute I set foot in Brisbane again. Last time the Customs guy with the beagle had the first jab. Next time my parents will probably lead the charge, and if my ocker doesn’t return sufficiently by the time I see Gormo the public shaming will be swift and severe indeed. I know I say “nooz” for news and “closet” for wardrobe, and there’s a million other examples I could give you. But it’s the ones I’m not aware of that are going to get me.)

Years ago when I was just out of high school I met an Australian guy that had lived in the United States for about 10 years. I remember how amazed and impressed I was that he didn’t have even the slightest trace of an accent. He seemed just about as Aussie as you could get and not be wearing an Akubra and riding a brumby whilst getting Sigrid Thornton from A to B. My guy was more of a rowdy-pub-stories-between-pints-of-Fourex kind of fella, but you get the general idea.

How did he do it? I demanded to know. What special trick did he have up his sleeve that no one else I’d met who’d been there for even a few weeks had been able to master?! His reply: “You only lose it if you want to, mate.” Now, I happen to think that he was right, but I also think he was spinning a little shit into his story. The thing he never mentioned, and which at the time I quietly suspected, and of which I am now positive, is that he loved being the Aussie in the room every time he did business with the Yanks. It was probably both a point of personal pride and an interactional strategy the same time. And instead of getting bullied by his mates when he came back, he had their admiration.

The thing I’ve learned after living in the U.S. for several years is that there’s no such thing as a neutral accent. This probably seems obvious, but the gap between theory and practice in this case is that when you’re forced to live as a “minority accent” you become aware of the contextual nature of assumptions of normal or accentless speech (after all, that used to be you), and the various ways in which you differ from that norm. Some choose to adapt by varying their vocabulary, others their pronunciation, yet others fight it directly, forcing their General American-speaking interlocuters to constantly ask them to repeat themselves or glean meaning from the discussion’s context (the “conversational implicature” as one of my university professors once called it). What’s next to impossible is to not react to your environment at all. To do so would really be a form of checking out, of dissociating. I suspect that most people tend to go in one of two directions—either accommodation to their environmental norm, or direct resistance. I think this explanation accounts for the “Ugly [Nationality] Syndrome” that you notice as a traveller abroad (resistance), and the “Instant Accent Syndrome” that you notice as a local back home (accommodation).

Now the choices one makes in the process of adaptation to such a shift in environment are subtle, but they are choices and they are continually being made, just like new skin cells on your arm or the dust that accumulates incessantly in the corners of the room. It gets tiring thinking about them sometimes which allows those small changes build up unknowingly and then you “suddenly” find yourself talking weirdly. Strangely with me I find such weirdness emerges in the form of both overtly American and Australian pronunciations, and which don’t seem to come out quite right in either dialect, and do not necessarily suit the utterances that they follow. We work on adjusting. We try to settle into some habits that feel balanced. But it’s when we shift contexts, let’s say from one community to another, that we become aware that our sense of balance doesn’t move quickly with us. We have to work to find it again and the people around us sometimes make that really difficult because either it is so effortless for them to tell us that we don’t belong, or because they insist that we make our entry on their terms. And who are we to argue?

As it is with accents, so it is with class. The estimable Pierre Bourdieu, in his book Language and Symbolic Power (1991, p.52) says it best:

There is every reason to think that the factors which are most influential in the formation of habitus are transmitted without passing through language and consciousness, but through suggestions inscribed in the most apparently insignificant aspects of the things, situations and practices of everyday life. Thus the modalities of practices, the ways of looking, sitting, standing, keeping silent, or even of speaking (‘reproachful looks’ or ‘tones,’ ‘disapproving glances’ and so on) are full of injunctions that are powerful and hard to resist precisely because they are silent and insidious, insistent and insinuating.

Bourdieu goes on to say that dominated speakers (he is referring to differences in ways of speaking between working- and upper class people) most insidiously subject their own speech to disciplinary actions and in some cases even wind up making themselves speechless, “‘tongue-tied,’ ‘at a loss for words,’ as if they were suddenly dispossessed of their own language.”

Avoiding such situations is a powerful motivation to adapt. Graduate school is a pretty awful place for this sometimes. It’s students are adults outside of the seminar room, and juniors within. With various degrees of consciousness, everyone learns to deal with the power imbalances that, by the time you get through your first year, have mostly receded into the finely sculpted woodwork. This is especially true of elite schools, where the woodwork itself is sometimes enough to inspire an unwelcome awareness of one’s own class origins.

You may choose to become part of a particular environment, but once you are there it has its way with you if you are not careful. And so every day we must make a dozen little choices and they feed back on us and the person that we are.

It’s all a bit much really and I don’t know how you can evaluate whether you’re doing it right, or whether, as Jefe says, you end up cheating on yourself at the advice of your mentors. The dangers are perhaps most evident for those of us who lead lives of relative privilege—materially comfortable in the middle-class surrounds that our education has bought for us. My advice to myself mostly boils down to, “Don’t be a dick.” It’s not easy, and I should know—it seems that life is constantly throwing me opportunities to be a tool. But if I can manage to avoid that most days, especially in the small ways, then what I’m really doing is being aware of the small choices that I’m making, the ones that add up to personality or character at the end of the day. If you can pass through doorways, even ivy-covered ones, and not be a dick on the other side then you will be keeping your deal with yourself (even if you sound a bit different to the folks back home). A bit philosophical perhaps, but there you have it. I leave it up to youse to correct me if y’all think I need it.

† Fourex is the Budweiser of Queensland.

2 responses

  1. Kevin

    Lord, you should hear this Queens honk that is sneaking back into my speech after only a month. Between living and working here, as well as driving here (nothing will make you sound like archie bunker faster than the BQE…), I’m starting to sound like an outer borough kid — something my snooty manhattan high school beat out of me for years. Of course, Jefe’s post had me thinking along similar lines as well.

    May 2nd, 2006 at 7:19 pm #

  2. Ads

    Can’t wait to see you again :-)

    May 2nd, 2006 at 9:15 pm #

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