Whose English Language? The Accent Debacle in the United States

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Richard Kumengisa (Middle) is a Cameroonian living in the United States.

By Richard C. Kumengisa

 

I met mainly old people of my bracket of life in the Mid-County Senior Center in West Palm Beach, Florida. The great majority of them were Spanish-speaking and did not speak English at all. A few of them sought to be nice and wanted to find out where I came from but, as I did not speak a word of Spanish, ended with greetings in their language which they soon taught me.

A Young Man with Guts

Apart from members of the Memoir Writing Group and the Creative Writing Group, with each of which I worked once a week in English, of course, I hardly conversed with people. Once in a while I would meet a worker of the center with whom I talked much about nothing, they just wanting to find out where I came from since I was different in speech and sometimes in dress. One of such people was a gentleman of medium height with ruffled brown hair and tired-looking gray eyes in his early thirties who was some kind of clerk in one of the offices. Without asking for my name, he asked where I came from. I told him from Cameroon in Central Africa, and he suddenly declared with certainty that I spoke with an accent. At first I wondered what he meant.
A Cameroonian acquaintance had told me a fortnight before to expect such declarations when I talked with a number of US nationals. He said they did that to provoke mainly African immigrants. I had not believed him. It was obvious now that my collocutor neither had the best of intentions nor any knowledge of what he was saying. He meant that I was either illiterate or not educated enough to speak correct English, the kind he spoke.
In truth, the gentleman was saying that my poor language exposed at best, a low level of education. His physiognomy said it all. I stood there gnashing my teeth interiorly, thinking of what to say to floor him, to give back his uncalled-for attack on my English language proficiency.
He noticed my vexation and tried to lighten the tense situation by telling me he was an excellent player of the conga. I said that was good. He smiled superciliously and strode across the hall to his office with, that’s the way I saw it, an air of achievement. I was left one down in the game he had invented for his purposes, and felt I owed myself something to give back to him to get even. I would probe his academic baggage and either take off my hat to his proven superiority or, somehow, show him that I was somewhere up there above him, none of which had anything to do with my Africanness. For all I knew, the New World was a place of interminable strife for displaying superiority and its accompaniments.

Perceptions may deceive

When we next met, he put his forefinger upon his right eyebrow and asked whether he had told me that I spoke with an accent. I told him it was possible but I wasn’t sure I had understood what he meant. I invited him to come with me for a word in private. I wanted to find out something important from him. Though he walked tall beside me, I felt myself engulfed in the meanness of a man leading an innocent lamb to the slaughter. I led him to a corner of the great hall where we could talk in private. He was anxious to talk. So was I. Only our reasons for this were vastly different. He wanted to show me what he thought I lacked and so bring me down to ground level and I wanted to show him what I had and so deflate his swollen ego. And the reason for this battle I would find out only after an armistice if there would be one. I told him that I had not understood what he meant by “accent” the other day when he said I spoke with an accent. Could he tell me what an accent was? He asked why not. He said an accent was like the strange way I spoke the English Language. I felt hot. He was secretly hurting me under a mask of unawareness of the fact.
I asked whether my speech was peculiar to me alone. He answered in the negative and added that Africans spoke that way. He had met a good number of them. He said African Americans had their own abnormal style also. I smiled to show my appreciation of his knowledge. I said I agreed I spoke like an African African, an African American would speak like one, who did he speak like? He said he spoke like a white American. I next asked him whether all white Americans spoke English in the same manner. He frowned, unsure of himself for a second. Then he said that was so. An instant later he shook his head and said no, it wasn’t so. They kind of spoke in different ways. I asked him how come and waited. Some thunderbolt of inspiration struck him and he declared that Kentucky, Brooklyn, Boston and a number of other places were possessed of characteristic ways of speaking. I told him he had, at last, defined what is called “accent” i.e. the way people of an area, province or region spoke a given language. That would be the accent of the place. He nodded vigorously.
I wanted to know whether Americans who learned French, would speak it like the French do. He said, with that tongue-twisting bloody language, they would definitely not. I said so Americans who had learned French would tend to speak it with an American flair, an American interference or, we could call it, an American accent, wouldn’t they? He said that would be so. So, individuals, whether they spoke their native language or a foreign one, would tend to speak it spiced their way, with the accent of their home environment or where they had grown up. He agreed. Therefore I necessarily spoke the English language with the inclination of the people of my place of origin, an accent as he had rightfully said. He nodded. So he too necessarily spoke the English language with one – a manner peculiar to the people of the place where he had grown up. He said, of course. I told him he could now see that we each spoke English in the peculiar manner of our place of origin or where we had been raised. This he confirmed by a big nod. Therefore we each spoke with an accent. He did not refuse. That meant that everybody spoke with an accent. His silence meant agreement. I said light-heartedly that, since he too was a body, he too spoke with an accent. He hung his head with a wry smile. He was impressed. He leaned forward. I told him that to say an educated person like me, a university don, an English language teacher who spoke standard English, the language of his education, understandable by students of Oxford and Cambridge alike, spoke English with an accent, would not be saying anything meaningful at all for it would be saying the obvious which applied to everybody who spoke the English language. I thought it would be foolish for me to challenge him to say a single word, correctly or wrongly, in a native language in Cameroon or anywhere in Africa.

Of Ad Ignorantiams and Ad Hominems

He immediately veered from the point of argument. He asked me what university I had attended. His expression told me he credited me with having been to some village college. I gave him time to think of me to be as little educated as he wanted. After all, my people had not invented the formal system of education in use and were, therefore, unlikely to excel in it – if I was reading his mind properly. At last I told him I had attended two universities – Yaoundé in Cameroon and la Sorbonne, Paris, in France. None of the names meant anything to him. I told him I had done classical Latin in college and linguistics and bilingual modern letters in the university. With shocked reverence in his eyes, he said I must be a linguist and could speak many languages. I told him I had studied world literature and spoke a handful of languages but that was not what made me a linguist. He asked me what did. I told him knowledge of the science of language, how a language is built, and how it functions is linguistics. One who speaks many languages is a polyglot who may not necessarily be a linguist. I said I had been a teacher of the English and French Languages and their literatures in my bilingual country, Cameroon, which is in the same situation like Canada. I spoke English and French, the two official languages of Cameroon, three unwritten native Cameroonian languages well and dabbled in two in which I could get by, be it with some difficulty.
His eyes opened wide. Some of his overconfidence was seeping away. He was so easy to read. I was glad. He had created the state of affairs and it was my pleasure to oblige him by showing him where he was lacking, thus proving, unequivocally, that I was not the empty calabash he talked down to. I wondered at the need for any kind of competition between us. He had pushed me into the foolishness of an unequal fight. I forged ahead for I had gone too far to calm down before the end. I wanted us to separate with him knowing that being African or black was neither tantamount to ignorance and lack of education nor having a fixed place in the lower rungs of the academic ladder. At this juncture I saw that I had to bear in mind the fact that I had not come to the USA for racial polemics. I came for sanctuary because we had bigger issues at home in Cameroon.
I discovered that he was completely monolingual. He spoke only English and believed his kind of it was the original – as if originality mattered in language – the proof of the falseness of this being the death of Sanskrit and Latin, despite their originality and custodianship of important knowledge, and the existence of their vibrant derivatives Hindu and Tamil in Asia, and the Latinate languages in Europe and the Americas today. He had been an English teacher, and his forbears had come from England. Since he was of English descent, I asked him a few questions on English history from John I, the Norman Conquest and Magna Carta through the reign of the Tudors and Stuarts to the Glorious Revolution of 1688. I also asked him about the Pilgrim Fathers and The Mayflower but he might never have been interested in his ancestry. I knew more about the history of his people than him. Why had I been pushed into learning it? That was in no way the history of my people. Where had it taken me? Here was someone to whom that knowledge should have meant something. It hadn’t in the least. Had that hurt him in any way?
We talked away idly for a while. He now considered me a great academic. He was interested in knowing the mind of an African African, and said he was surprised that I spoke English so well and was well informed about the Occident. I told him colonialists had imposed their system of education on us in Africa. We had not changed it after independence.

At the end of the day whose English?

He asked me why I said I had studied world literature. I told him I had touched upon all the important literatures of the world. He wanted me to talk about a number of American writers. I did so at random – mentioning Hemingway, Melville, Hawthorne, Ellison and so on – and he listened keenly. We touched poetry, going from the Islander McKay through Frost to Hughes and even touching Nash. He said his favorite American writer was Edgar Allan Poe. I told him that was mine too. I wanted him to say something about Poe – Fall of the House of Usher, The Murders in the Rue Morgue, The Tell-tale Heart, The Black Cat, The Raven etc. He hadn’t read any of these works. I refrained from asking him one work of our common favorite writer, his compatriot, that he had read. He might never have read anything Poe wrote. I had read virtually all of Poe’s works. Where had that taken me? What had that made me?
I told him I had done a great deal of work in both black and white American Literatures, and some American history like their war of independence and the part they played in World War II. I liked Thomas Paine’s ideas on religion A depressing thought hit me – in my country, as in my continent, we knew so much about other people and their countries and had adopted their religions and way of life but knew so little about ours. How much did those people know or care to know about us and ours, not to talk of their adopting anything connected with us in anyway.
I deeply regretted the time the Cameroonian educational system, inherited from Europe, had made us waste in school for things that were never going to be useful to us, instead of making us learn who we were, what we had been and where we were heading.
When recess was over my companion said he had to hurry back to work. He bowed as we shook hands. The next day, from the coffee table in the great round hall, I saw him pointing me out to one of his coworkers, a tall white woman with a deeply wrinkled face, a prominent nose and silver hair, and declaring that I was from East Africa and knew so many languages. When he was leaving, he smiled broadly at me and waved frantically. I returned his smile with no less enthusiasm and bowed from the chair on which I was sitting. He was a really nice fellow. What could have spurred him on to seek to alienate me instead of going the other way round which would have been so much better and easier. When the door of his office shut, I felt his female companion’s eyes on me from time to time as she sipped her coffee. Her scrutiny went from the Cameroonian embroidered native jumper on my body to the exquisite Clark’s sandals my son had bought me for my last birthday. I was not surprised when she finished her beverage and came straight to where I was sitting. She said hi and I replied same. She abruptly asked me whether I spoke Italian. I said no and was wondering the reason for the question when she hit me with another. Were there cars in my country? I saw where she was going. Not to disappoint her, I said no. She said she would have been surprised. She liked me because I told the truth. Some Africans, she continued, had told her lies about cars in their countries. I wondered what purpose it would serve for me to try to undeceive her and how far I would get. She had not been asking; she had been telling me in the question.
More
In our last but one meeting, the former teacher and I got better acquainted and got to know each other’s name. Although I was more than double his age, we called each other by our first names, in line with American informality, so different from what holds good in most of Africa. We met for the last time the day the center was closed in respect of the Covid19 pandemic. We argued over who should pay for the coffee. I let him pay to please him. We both hoped to meet again after Covid19, God willing.
The Senior Center is a very interesting place. Within a short time, I had met truly educated people from whom I have learnt and am learning a mighty lot. They are genuinely interested in my part of the world and we share interesting ideas, having gone as far as defeating Covid19 by continuing to meet for our memoir writing classes by Zoom every Thursday at 10.30 a.m. as we did before. The center harbored people of different languages, nationalities and educational backgrounds. There are a handful of blacks amongst whom we are only two Africans who are not unaware of the age-old acrimony in the divide between whites and blacks. For me I know that one must be wary in a fruitful forest lest one steps on a poisonous snake. I pinched myself back into reality after a cordial separation from the former English language teacher. What did it matter whether Americans thought I spoke with an accent or not? What did it change if they thought I was illiterate or little educated. I resolved that the next time anyone told me I spoke with an accent, I would agree in toto. I am safe in the USA and enjoying its largesse for which I’m not ungrateful. I’ll avoid any disagreements with uninformed belligerent nationals on the prowl for immigrants to provoke. Truly educated people the world over are a delight to associate with.
The two writing groups of highbrows in which I belong – The Memoir Writing Group, extant and vibrant on Zoom, and the Creative Writing Group, made inactive by Covid19, – of the Mid-County Senior Center are precious wells for the fetching of wholesome enlightening water be it with an accent or not.

About the Author

Blessed E. Ngoe
Lover, brother, uncle, father and friend.

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