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Accents aren’t fake; they are a product of one’s environment

Tuesday March 24 2020
By MAKAU MUTUA

Some Kenyan nitwits keep telling me I speak with a fake American accent. Well, I’ve had it with them.

Today, I will take them down, and put them in their place so they know better. But remember, this column today is half parody, part fact, while the rest is a smorgasbord of vignettes.

Even so, I am dead serious because you can teach lessons in all three vectors.

Fact – those who haven’t gone beyond their village believe accents are immutable and frozen in the museum of antiquities for all time.

Fiction – accents are natural and genetic. Parody – mimicry, or imitation isn’t the same thing as fake. Now, I’ll peel your eyes even if you are dumb, and can’t speak.

Very few things about humans are truly genetic, or fixed in anatomical biology. Much of what we are, including our bodies and our anatomical functions, are largely environmental products of socialisation.

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Most body parts are socialised in particular ways to perform specific functions, or experience certain sensations.

That’s why the word “natural” is a misnomer in lexicon to describe what we do.

Much of our lives are controlled by something we call “civilisation” or “morality”; that which is normalised and acceptable according to community standards.

For example, in some ancient societies it was normal to kill twins who were believed to be evil. Gays or lesbians, for example, were revered in some American Indian or native American communities. Let’s first debunk the notion of cultural, or anatomical, fixity.

Notions of determinism, or the essentialisation of the human, or anything else, is the trap of the illiterate, the uneducated and the unsophisticated.

The village idiot, who doesn’t necessarily live in the village, has a very small intellectual canvas with which to work. Sadly, many village idiots live in the biggest metropoles in the world, including Nairobi.

Conversely, cosmopolitans – those with the largest and most discerning brains – live anywhere. The former suffer from simple minds. The latter are perpetually on a journey of personal jihad of self-liberation from myopia, or intellectual metastasis.

The way we view language, and the phenomenology of the accent, separates the villager from the cosmopolitan.

Let me use myself as a guinea pig. I was born in Kitui Township and lived my pre-teen early life there. Later, still in my teens, I lived in the State of Illinois in the United States for more than a year and then in Kikuyu where I did part of my high school at Alliance.

In between, I spent substantial periods in Nairobi. My point is that even in my teens, I was exposed to a very wide swath of cultures and environments in addition to my nativity in Kitui. This is not the normal life of most teens. I consider myself lucky to have been moulded by diverse cultures. It’s a priceless gift. The most important variable in political society – especially in a democracy, or in the struggle to create one – is to learn to live with difference with ease. Ideally, a diverse existence should allow one deep introspection about “the other”.

The Other, in the language of high theory, refers to the identity of he, or she, who’s different from the “standard” self, or the accepted identity of those from the hegemonic, or dominant, group.

The process of “othering” is therefore the diminution of the humanity of those who don’t belong to the dominant or accepted group from which standards of beauty, civilisation, and power are drawn.

“Othering” excludes, subordinates, dominates, and displaces the humanity of the targets of the hegemon. Language – how it’s spoken and understood as a labour of the intellect – is one loci of the othering process. That’s why accents are so important. Your accent – and how well you understand and can speak a language – usually determine your social status.

But only if the language in question is a hegemonic, or dominant, language such as English, French or any of the imperial European languages.

Speaking great Kikamba, Dholuo, or Gikuyu unfortunately won’t raise your social status and elevate your social recognition in most places.

That’s why I so admire writer Ngugi wa Thiongo for fighting to decolonise how we view African languages. But I digress. Access to material resources therefore determines your linguistic acumen and accent.

Your accent is a product of all your environments and social statuses combined.

If a Kenyan lives in Tanzania for a long period, or from youth, his Kiswahili will be Tanzanian and won’t be spoken with a Kikamba or Gikuyu accent.

Even in America, there are different accents of English based on region and level of education.

We learn language through imitation and mimicry – usually from childhood. I have lived in America for close to 40 years – that’s most of my life.

I would either be uneducable, impervious to my environment, or simply deaf and dumb if American English hadn’t deeply influenced – unalterably – my accent. That would be sad. Accents aren’t fake.                                   

Mutua is SUNY Distinguished Professor at SUNY Buffalo Law School and Chair of KHRC. @makaumutua.

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