This article is meant to spark debate and to draw attention to a neglected topic. It is not meant to be an academic article although an attempt was made to balance research and opinion. It is perfectly acceptable to disagree with the views contained in this article since the goal is to evoke conversation and critical introspection. It may offend and that is acceptable. The important goal is to continue debate between all people.
In many parts of the world, there is an aspiration held by many (but not all) people of colour towards ‘attaining’ lighterskin or artificial hair. Much has been written on either side of those topics it is not explored here. It is enough for now to state that I support the view that, often the underlying reason is an internal view that characteristics associated with white people are more desirable than those associated with people of colour. Both aspirations form lucrative markets which are disproportionately funded by people of colour, many of whom who cling to the lower threads of the income spectrum. Accents do not form the same kind of market but has still proven to be a cause of concern: people of colour with existing accents while speaking English, who then change it to an accent associated with white people. That is the scope of this article instead of other forms of accent acquisition such as children who (regardless of their race), grow up with a single primary accent when speaking English.
The aspiration toward a lighter shade of skin, artificial hair or a different accent spark the same questions: Why and what was wrong with the original shade of skin, type of hair or accent? Why did it feel inferior or why was the new accent acquisition more appealing? What or whose standard is being sought after? Some groups are unapologetic about their accents and others strive to change their accents – why? The questions can be phrased in any number of ways but the core idea is the same.
CONCEPTION: WHAT IS AN ACCENT? AND ACQUISITION: WHERE DOES IT COME FROM?
Briefly defined, an accent is a manner of pronunciation. Therefore everyone has an accent and it is a myth that some have an accent and others do not. It can be identified using factors not limited to location, race, socio-economic status, social class or by influence of a foreign language. Some accents carry prestige and others may encounter prejudice. Further, it should be easy to agree that children would acquire accents more effortlessly and that the amount of effort to change an accent would increase over time, passed puberty and into adulthood. This would have of course, differ from person to person. It is also possible to control the way we speak whether consciously or sub-consciously but that still leaves the burning question – why change?
REASONS FOR CHANGING
People have different motivations for changing accents and it borders on harsh to question the legitimacy of those reasons – especially if the reason was to escape prejudice. Still, it is important to be aware which is why I have selected a few possible reasons for change.
This is probably the reason most people view as acceptable. While working at a call centre which serviced people from North America, I was told that ‘my accent was too thick’ so I adapted my way of talking for the sake of communication temporarily while talking to American citizens on the phone. Some may experience extended periods of time abroad where an accent may need to be changed for the sake of communication. It seems like the most practical circumstance.
Accents with less prestige may have to deal with both negative stereotypes and prejudice (whether outwardly manifested or not). Such prejudice may result in people unjustifiably being judged as less intelligent, having poor communication skills and being less attractive.
Linguistically, all accents are equal. However, some accents carry more prestige than others – some segments of society may believe that one is superior because associated with an elite part of society. In the United Kingdom for example, an accent which carries more prestige would be more geographically based due to the overwhelmingly homogenous population. An example of such a stereotype is the association of some British accents with intelligence. Its a positive stereotype but a stereotype none the less. There are also examples where people may change their accent purposefully based on their environment such as when entering a hairdresser or when delivering a presentation.
In South Africa where the population is quite diverse, it is argued that the accent with the most prestige belongs to a minority white ethnic group. There exists a perception among a few that an ‘African’ or ‘Coloured’ accent is less intelligent and less desirable. Why does the same assumption not exist for someone with a French accent for example? Could it be because the French accent is generally of European decent?
This was clear to me at university where it seemed that highly intelligent lecturers were sometimes viewed as less intelligent based on the way they pronounced words. Lecturers with European accents (such as a French accent) did not seem to encounter the same treatment. The difference seemed to be that one accent was African, and the other European.
An inferiority complex consists of lack of self-esteem, a doubt and uncertainty about oneself, and feelings of not measuring up to standards. People need to question whose standards they are being held to – even when accents are being judged. It would be sad if it were true that people were changing their accents because of low self-esteem because it would mean that one group is allowing itself to be assimilated by another because the former believes that it is inferior. A person of colour who changes their accent because of low self-esteem seems to be allowing their own culture to be diminished and seems to be accepting inferiority of their own accent which in my opinion – should never be allowed. It is possible to speak ‘proper’ English without changing one’s accent. The question then becomes what is meant by a proper accent and that question is rightfully asked.
In South Africa, many families whose first language is not English force their children to enter English medium schools even if it risks failing because the families believe that their children will have a better future and perhaps there is truth to that. Others may already have English as a first language but may choose to place their children at a school where they would be around an accent which is more desirable. At university and work level, a conscious decision might be made for the same reason. An employer may have a negative perception toward a particular language or accent so the decision is understandable but nevertheless tragic. This is definitely the case with China-based language centres who try and source English teachers from the UK and US exclusively because it is what the market demands. Another term of marketability in this context may be survival but it means the same, especially in social circumstances.
It is normal for a child (regardless of race) child to grows up with a certain accent. Arguably, so is acquiring an accent over a very extended period of time so this aspect is not very contentious.
AN INTERESTING EXAMPLE OF CHANGE
I attended my high school two people I will call brother and sister because they were related and it protects their identities. The three of us have similar backgrounds and similar accents. We parted ways at the dawn of university and met after of our undergraduate graduations. After just four years, both had grown as people (as they should) but the sister had acquired a completely new accent associated with white people and the brother did not. Both attended the University of Cape Town although they studied in different faculties. Both continued to live in the same household, and had largely the same friends. A few years later, they were encountered by my relatives who are as familiar with them as I am. After a confused glare from my relative, the sister reverted to her previous accent which my relatives associated with them. Why did her accent change and how was she able to revert back to the old accent so naturally? I do not intend to answer or explore these questions but my hope is that it would motivate you to do so.
Identity is fluid and people may choose who they wish to be and which accent they would like to use. Although it is my view that people should understand their reasons for doing so. My hope is that people of colour who experience this change in accent are not experiencing an ‘inferiority complex of people of colour’ – allowing themselves to be assimilated for this reason couldn’t be the best route to take. It reminds me of the novel animal farm during which the pigs wish to overthrow the farmers and their whips, but in the end the pigs hold the whip themselves. Hopefully that is not the goal here. The negative perception of African accents (all of them in Africa) must change. A negative perception leads to negative results such as viewing people as less intelligent. I hope that more people continue to be proud of their accents and remember that their accent is equal to all others. It is possible to be articulate and respectful while maintaining your own unique accent. We (all people of all races) have enough leaders of colour who are proud examples of such character.