Sunday, May 29, 2005

Do You Have An Accent?

Last night, while my wearied mind was struggling between wakefulness and sleep, a few straggling thoughts stubbornly resisted in taking their rightful place, which was oblivion, during such a difficult but important phase of the daily routine. A few nasty thoughts refused to be shaken off and continued floating carelessly across my consciousness. Part of the problem was because one thought was particularly both amusing and mind-gnawing given the circumstances surrounding it.

It came from a regular reading of the dozen or two email groups that I am a member of, though inactive in most of them. I would be your typical lurker, or fly on the wall, or cyberspace voyeur, casually fishing for any thing interesting from these different sources. And given that these groups are quite a motley combination of members coming from varied ethnicities and delving on different subject matters, they do at times provide a lot of interesting insights on the intellectual workings-on, including idiosyncrasies, of the diverse membership. Some funny, some amusing, at times ludicrous or shallow, or at times just plain petty and therefore a plain waste of time and effort on both reader and writer.

The thought was triggered by a reading of a short barrage of contentious exchanges between several members on the issue of one very high government official being criticized as having a bad accent. The incendiary exchanges would have been not unusual for this considerably large group which has had a few similar attractions in the not too distant past. But it was the subject matter that got my mind whirling.

It was the issue of accent in the speaking of English. The snappy criticism was just as rapidly responded with an equally tart retort, coming from the party who had initially heaped some mighty praises on the same individual.

From the outset, one got the feeling that the response to the short critique was fired off simply to fight fire with fire, rather than go the tactful route of a dispassionate and serious excavation and dissertation into the issue of accent. What is accent and who speaks an accent?

I would go about it this way. And mind you, it would essentially be my personal assessment and nothing more. Thus, no need to flog me if one disagrees.

If one is in the United States, one is said to be speaking with an accent if one’s speech betrays its not being similar or the same as the many native speakers of the place. Native speakers can both be foreign born or those who grew up in the place as a young kid, or simply one who acquired or adapted the same speech patterns as most of the population. In this case, even a Brit, possessor of the King’s English and coming from a country where the language originated, would be considered as having an accent, and we say, a British accent. Of course, in England, his home country, everybody else except him and those who speak like him, would be considered as having an accent. In that milieu, the native American speaker would be said to have an American accent.

Now in my estimation, the problem lies, especially with a good many of my Filipino compatriots, in that we tend to lump everything that separates our speech from the native speakers as simply a question of accent, when in many or most instances they are something else. For example, we tend to consider the mispronunciation of words as simply a matter of accent and not a problem of proper enunciation of the words of the language. When we pronounce all the f sounds as p sounds, that is mispronunciation, not accent.

When we miss the th sounds that is not accent, that is enunciating the words improperly. When our speech cannot sufficiently differentiate between the short vowel sounds and the long vowel sounds that would not be because of accent, but again because we are not enunciating the words properly.

Furthermore, if we cannot be discriminate enough to know where the proper stress/accent of a multi-syllabic word lies, or in our speech intonation, we do not put emphasis on the action word of a sentence which is the verb but rather on either the subject or object, then we simply are not speaking English the way it is taught.

So these and more of the nuanced exceptions that English is littered with, if they are missed, tripped over, or omitted, are not attributable to accent, but simply a failure to speak English properly.

Our present immigrant California governor may be a so-so analogy. We may find a bit of humor in his accent when he pronounces his state of governance, California, with his short ah sound and his rolling or slurring of the r sound, but in my judgment, his pronunciation is passable. It would really be bad, if he misses the f sound and instead allows a p sound to come out in the same word.

While still in the old country, I had often wondered at the way the colegialas and the favored few who were able to go to those high-priced exclusive private schools in Metro Manila, pronounce the word student, as “stoodent". The native American speaker could normally pronounce the word with the u sound or maybe the short o sound, but never as stoodent.

The only way to avoid scrutiny about accent is to simply write everything down instead of speaking. Writing provides the level playing field, where accent plays absolutely no role. Yours will read like one coming from any good Brit or American.

So, who has the accent? Or, who has the bad accent?

Your call.