In the opening chapter of his autobiography, Hunger of Memory, Richard Rodriguez explores his introduction to the English language, and the strain his commitment to mastering it places on his relationship with his parents. Being Mexican immigrants to America in the 1970’s, their primary language of intimacy and engagement is Spanish, their efforts in English being halting and deeply accented, even though his mother is an excellent speller of words. The emotion most stirred in those early days – when he as the up and coming scholarship boy gets to be out and about with them – is one of embarrassment and perhaps frustration at their limitations. For him, as with most people looking to escape the limitations of a certain kind of background, aspiration is a keen motivator, one that drives him to seek to immerse himself in knowledge and books, and take up the manners, airs and graces of the class and culture he looks up to.
Language, particularly where there is one which dominates the economic, political and cultural landscape in a given society, is often the most visible marker of class, and the ‘easiest’ target for those who would aspire to those heights. There is a sense in which English – for now at least until China takes over the world – remains such a language for many people around the world. This was brought home to me quite forcibly by the gaggle of people I met at my water survival course a week ago. In spite of our varying nations of origin, Nigeria (in my case), Spain, France and the token Englishman, fluency in English – at least to such an extent where one could understand and be understood – was clearly a highly prized asset.
Beyond fluency, accents also serve as differentiators, often because we as people thin-slice others, drawing inferences from our first impressions a significant proportion of which is influenced by how they sound. As an example, more often than not if presented with a Glaswegian accent, my first instinct would be to ensure my wallet is well tucked away out of sight. Received pronunciation portrays an element of class and polish, English spoken with a South Texas drawl immediately makes me think of a gun-slinging, cowboy boot wearing, oil patch veteran. On the other hand, if Barry Glendenning were female, his accent would have me hot under the collar. Clearly different strokes for different folks. In fact, one of the more interesting telephone interviews I have had was for a job in Newcastle a few years ago, ending with the interviewer asking me what part of the world I was from because he couldn’t place my (edited, and some would say contrived) accent.
I suspect that our Nigerian OAPs are on to something here, given how contrived their accents allegedly are. Given their need to differentiate themselves from what is a crowded market place, perhaps selling an aspirational accent to us is merely one more trick in their toolboxes…