Accents

An excerpt from "Traveling With an Accent" by Rob Nixon in the New York Times (June 8, 2003)

When I first moved to the United States from South Africa in 1980, I found one American turn of phrase particularly intriguing. It was a phrase I heard a lot: “You speak with an accent.” I understood what it meant to speak with a foreign accent. But with an accent? Wasn’t that redundant—like saying “You breathe with lungs,” “You walk with legs”? Could anyone possibly imagine that speech flowed from some meganormal, accent-liberated zone?

If such a person existed, that person was never likely to be me. By now, my speech is native to nowhere. When I open my mouth, out tumble twisted accent remnants: from South Africa, Iowa, north London, New York, the Upper Midwest. I have lived for long stretches on three continents; too much traveling has derailed my voice. My accent is a train wreck, mangled bits of steel, cracked glass, wood splinters protruding here and there.

At the end of the article, he writes:

By now my ear is tuned to American frequencies. It wasn’t always that way. During my first week in Iowa, I went straight from my William Blake seminar to teaching freshman rhetoric 101. After the opening class, a woman in a Hawkeyes swim team sweatshirt caught up with me in the corridor. She announced, with a mixture of Midwestern politeness and American directness: “I know I’m really, really going to enjoy this class. But I can’t understand anything you’re saying. You speak with an accent.”

I sympathized. I was still struggling to adapt to the exotic surges of pitch, tone and emphasis in American speech.

So I smiled, hoping that the smile at least spoke international body English. “That’s O.K., Melissa,” I said, slowing down, enunciating every syllable, trying to hear myself from the outside. “I’m having some difficulty adjusting to your accent too. Not to worry. I’m sure we’ll work it out.”

A bewildered look shot across her face.

“But I don’t have an accent. I’m from Des Moines.”