Saturday, 5 March 2011

What's with the accent?

Remember this? I finally got to write the second part (after 3 years). Some important points were directly taken from the first part for those too lazy to backtrack.

I live in a country where accents are a big deal. I'm not sure how true that is, statistically speaking, but my day-to-day experiences are convincing. It annoys me, for the most part, but it can sometimes be amusing.

That local twang.
Your everyday tindera might not care, but if you intend to work for a high-paying job, they expect you to lose your native accent. Apparently, the accent that identifies you with your ethnic heritage is not good enough (unless you're a politician). You have to "correct" it, twist it to sound more "international", regardless of the fact that "beri mats" would still be perfectly understood by most people. I own a small store and I still get what they mean when they say "fuji bar".

Status affects the accent and accent affects the status.
It really does. Your accent may either invoke prestige or invite ridicule, according to the biases of your audience. Comedian Jeff Foxworthy says: "I used to say that whenever people heard my Southern accent, they always wanted to deduct 100 IQ points." And isn't that still true for many of us? Home County Brits looking down on Northerners? Manilans on Visayans? It has got to go.

That non-US accent.
In Manila, speaking with a General American accent will earn you extra points in a job interview, but speak with a British accent and you will capture hearts. Trust me, I know. It's what pays the rent. You have to be British, though, or at least have had lived in Britain for several years. People will never understand how you got the accent without actually living there. It's such an enigma, and it doesn't always help to explain in detail because most people have such short attention spans. But it's absolutely normal, of course, to have an American accent without actually living in America. Fucking fair, in'nit?

People seem to forget that this so-called "British" accent (the Hugh Grant accent), more accurately called Received Pronunciation, is an international standard just like General American. As a matter of fact, RP was already the international standard way before any American accent was heard outside the Atlantic. Singapore? Hong Kong? India? Australia? New Zealand? New ENGLAND? All British. Why can't a Filipino take up this accent instead of the usual American? Don't let the trend stop you.

You can't prescribe accents.
Not anymore, at least. You can't assume that every Filipino will speak in a certain way. It's a small world, after all, and telly does quite change a lot. School teachers are no longer the only source of edumacation. It's sad, because it shouldn't have been that way, but I avoided my English school teachers at all costs.

What fake accent?
Anybody know that Filipino-British model-turned-actor(?) Jonathan Mullaly? Jon Avila it is now, I reckon. Well, he was once rumoured to fake his "British" accent. I'm not sure who spread the rumour, but I bet it was a tabloid writer. Imagine the horror of having a peabrain who has probably never been to England, or if he has, never gone anywhere outside his flat, tell you you're faking your own accent. The poor bastard probably didn't know there are countless accents in Britain (a ridiculous number), and that it just so happens that Jon, who may after all have a mixed accent, speaks with an accent he has never heard of.

"If yowm saft enuff ter cum dahn 'ere agooin wum. Yowr tay ull be spile't!" That's English traditionally spoken in Black Country, just beside Birmingham. 

What about Geordie? "Gan man an hide thysel! Gan an' get thy picks agyen. Thou may de for the city, but never for the west end o' wor toon."


Besides, what makes an accent fake, anyway? Accents change all the time. You're not even born with an accent. You learn it. Some parts of it you inherit at an early age from your elders, some parts from your neighbourhood, some parts from school, and so on. Would you say that the accent you had when you were seven is more authentic than the one you have now? Or the other way around, perhaps? Some celebrities are even questioned for their "fluctuating" accents such as Madonna who lived for a while in the UK. What did everyone expect, that she'd remain steadily New Yorker even after being surrounded by Brits for several years? People change and so do their accents, and it's not always because they want to sound cool. Most of the time, they can't help it. And when they can help it, it's still not necessarily done to impress you, but to accommodate you. I tend to be a very accommodating speaker myself. There are times when I deliberately modify my pronunciation so others might shift their focus away from my phonemes and more on what I'm actually saying. Who hasn't traded their Western pronunciations for local ones in places like Quiapo?

I do, however, find it pretentious when Filipinos forget their native accent after A YEAR OR LESS living in the US. Learning the accents around you is expected, but forgetting the one you grew up with isn't that easy.

But you can have more than one "natural" accent.
Just as you can have more than one parent language, you can also have more than one parent dialect or accent. This is especially true for people who grew up with more than one English dialect. Some people will learn just one from such a setting (my brother did, he stuck with GA). Some will learn several (as I did). 

I grew up with a wide variety of speech patterns: Mother spoke a very standard local variant of English (she frowned when I spoke anything else, telling me not to sound too foreign) whilst Father frequently switched from RP to GA and back. Television wasn't any better as a "neutraliser" as Brother and I were raised on a mix of Sesame Street, John Hurt, The Simpsons, The Godfather, Charlton Heston, Michael Caine, Maggie Smith, and a bunch of other "oldschool" thespians. Irish and Scottish characters were always a favourite, though, and we haven't really got(ten) rid of the tendency to pronounce "rain" and "row" as monophthongs. We quite fancy it, actually.

RP was the strongest influence for me, however. Obviously. As far as I can remember, the voice in my head had always been RP-ish (special thanks to Pa and Sir John). I assumed it was the correct accent and the Eurocentricity of some family members only enforced the idea even more. But I never really got to openly use it full-time because I felt it made other people uncomfortable. And it did. They would twitch and I would stop speaking. It made me very conscious of the way I talked and my timidity fed on it for several years.
It was only when I left school and started working that I was forced to conform to a single standard (or at least, one standard at a time). My coach was convinced to have me choose sides. It wasn't really a hard decision to make. I chose to follow that accent in my head and it was the most liberating thing that had ever happened to me. I had finally "outed" myself as an RP speaker.

Nonetheless, I still switch between accents according to the occasion, mood, or person I'm speaking with. When I'm all formal or when I need to explain something in detail, I use my default British Received (or occasionally, Transatlantic). In slightly more informal situations, I slip into a more Estuary-type accent. And when I'm with family or close friends, I toss several different accents all at once. It's always an accent party with familiars!

You can't "lose" an accent if you've only got one.
An issue of semantics, but it's basically true. Because we all have accents. As long as you can speak a language, you will have an accent. It's part of the package. "Switch" is a more accurate term than "lose", I suppose. You can switch from one accent to another and back, or mix several accents together, or have one fade in the background whilst using the other more frequently.

Use a more neutral accent!
Which one? Accent neutrality is always relative. If I were a Scot from Edinburgh, the neutral accent to me would definitely be Edinburgh Scottish (and even there you are bound to hear variations). This is probably why many Manilans think they are "accent-less" ... because they live in the capital and their dialect (Manila Tagalog) is the basis of the standard (Filipino). Now, imagine if the capital had been somewhere in Batangas.

English is no exception in this matter, however internationally acclaimed some of its accents are. Even more so, actually. Such a widely-spoken language is bound to be pluricentric. David Crystal writes "[a] totally uniform, regionally neutral, and unarguably prestigious variety does not yet exist worldwide. [And whilst] the notion of a 'standard pronunciation' is useful in the international setting of English as a second or foreign language, but here too there is more than one teaching model - chiefly, British Received Pronunciation and US General American."

Our sense of identity affects the things we learn and choose not to learn, as well. 
Remember how partial I was to RP growing up? That plays a huge factor, too. You can't learn something if you don't want to. There was a point in my life when I deliberately avoided the American dialect because, not only was I partial to anything European, I had a distaste for anything American. Some Filipinos tend to avoid their own local dialect of English, too, and we see this everyday in countless numbers of wealthy ex-peasants who roam the metropolis shedding their indigenous identity for Starbucks. The changes are deliberate because there is a conscious motive. I can only hope for these absurd biases to die off someday. 

All accents, dialects, and languages are made equal. Use as much as you can to your liking, or as few, but another person's speech is no better or worse than yours.

And because I'm still bad with endings, I will stop here. There will probably be a third part. Maybe. Or I could write about grammar. Bad SVA is a disease. Ye cannae spak the leid without the propar grammers.

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