As I try to develop a new accent for an upcoming theater performance, I find myself in all sorts of philosophical conversations with myself about the connotation of an accent, the variety of American accents, and the process of developing your own.
A person’s accent tells loads about their background, but it cannot tell you everything. For example, when I speak Romanian, I sound like those who taught me, but it does not tell you how or when I learned the language. I’m grateful that I still sound so much like my Peace Corps host family and friends that others will comment on the distinct accent.
Unfortunately, sometimes that commentary is negative. Almost exactly one year ago, someone insulted my Moldovan-sounding accent while speaking Romanian, having preferred that I sounded like an American rather than a Moldovan. I was livid. There I was, excited, as an American, to converse with you in your language, and you laugh at me for speaking too well in the wrong accent?
To put this in perspective, this would be like a Californian insulting a foreigner’s phenomenal English because the foreigner spoke with a drawl.
There are a whole host of complicated, historical, subjective reasons for this uncomfortable conversation, but I just want to clarify that two of the three Romanians were supportive, excited and eager to talk with me. Obviously I cannot judge a whole country’s perspective based on the insulting attitude of one person. But the comment stuck with me and saturated my blood for the next few weeks. It still makes me defensive when I think about it, because it was an insult to all those whose accent I had subconsciously picked up.
Just as country-specific accents can get a bad rap, so too, can regional dialects here within America. A person is judged at first vowel. “Most people [think] I’m fat because of my voice, but I’m not,” says one southerner. This isn’t new. I am not pretending to be enlightening you with this tidbit. But considering I am now purposely trying to develop a drawl (and a lilt), I want to make sure I do so respectfully and with an awareness of the fine nuances between southern accents, rather than with extreme generalizations and assumptions.
A person’s accent is their history, their story, their culture, their birth (or their effort to change their birth). Insulting an accent is a criticism of everything you think that accent/region/culture represents. I know this is a huge exaggeration, but it is a necessary sensitivity. I would like to think that I would always have been as aware, but the truth is that I likely wasn’t. Only after getting insulted myself, and after having to consciously develop another accent, am I more likely to be sensitive to my own stereotypes of all accents. Even as someone who considered going back to school for the sociology of language, a self-proclaimed language-lover, I, too, and biased. Unspoken stereotypes still whirl in my head, but now I try to listen with wonder and amazement, rather than secret annoyance and impatience.