April 25, 2018 | Narrative
accents that mark
the implications of intonations
When my Taiwanese parents say my English name, each syllable lands with an abrupt thud, punched out like three decisive raps on a door: EH-muh-lee. My brother’s name, “Vincent,” slides off their tongues as “VING-sun!”, invariably punctuated by an exclamation mark and a high-pitched lilt.
At the summer camp where my brother and I taught English for three years, Taiwanese children would nickname Vincent Bing-suen, or “cold bamboo shoot.” On top of recurring mnemonic devices, the kids would give themselves English names ranging from “Kobe” to “Handsome,” sometimes after a famous NBA player, sometimes after a word scavenged online, always one they could not properly pronounce.
When my Taiwanese parents say my English name, I think about what it means to call your child by a name you can never quite get right.
Think about the French accent and think elegant classy high-class and think tall dude in a wool cardigan with the perfect amount of intellect, manners, and facial hair. Think about the Chinese accent and think fresh off the boat and think this restaurant has terrible service and you’re getting two stars from me on Yelp. Think about how French and Chinese accents are just two types of accents. How they should sit on equal playing fields and how they most definitely don’t.
As someone who attended an American school in Taiwan, I have a strange relationship with accents. On one hand, I feel vaguely offended when someone says that my English is at all accented. On the other, I detest being told—as is usually the case—that I have a “perfect American accent,” and I’m even more repulsed by the way I feel immediately superior when someone opens their mouth and broken English tumbles out, even when the mouth belongs to my parents or relatives or fellow students whom I respect deeply.
I want to be proud of my heritage, but I also want to be taken seriously. I want to transcend my heritage without giving way to racism that I’ve internalized. I’m struggling to do both, and my biggest fault probably lies in my assumption that they’re nearly mutually exclusive in the world we live in.
The matter becomes further muddled once we exit the English-speaking realm. My own Mandarin invites remarks from locals about how “ABC” (American-Born Chinese) I sound—of course, the acronym always inflected with a cheery Taiwanese tone. When my Chinese (American) friends at Brown call what I consider to be the “standard” Mandarin dialect my “Taiwanese accent,” I jab back unimaginatively by calling their curled intonations “the Chinese accent.”
When we call the mode in which entire peoples speak an accent or dialect, we often reduce their way of speaking into a minor key of the mainstream mode of speech, writing, being. A variant, a derivative, cast into the margins—whether we like it or not, noting someone’s foreign accent is almost always a process of simultaneous differentiation and hierarchization. It’s easy to let yourself indulge in this tendency when the language and manner of speech your mother braided into you put you right at the top of that hierarchy, right from the start.
Last spring, I pronounced the word “paradigm” as para-dig-um in a comparative literature class. I jammed it into some phrase like “his positionality in the Oedipal paradigm,” freshly harvested out of my ass. I had seen the word thrown around in books and recent readings and SAT vocab lists for months and maybe even a year by then, but I had never heard it spoken aloud.
Moments after I confidently recited my token line of participation, a pit began to form at the bottom of my throat. Later, the YouTube video “How to pronounce paradigm” confirmed my deepest fears.
My embarrassment stemmed not only from my chronic distaste for doing anything wrong, but also from a strange awareness of how mispronounced words sit amidst my otherwise “perfect American accent” like a fully-clothed person might at a Nudity in the Upspace event.
Whereas having a thoroughly foreign accent might have excused any mistake in pronunciation, a “perfect” native accent demanded perfect delivery. Without the full-time wrongness associated with foreign accents to vindicate me, I was left chipping away at my Americanized ego, one unsilenced silent letter at a time.
Upon closer inspection, however, American colloquialisms are equally laced with mistakes. The word “mischievous” somehow acquires an i, perhaps by means of a famous collective narcissism, and becomes “mischievious.” The Massachusetts town Worcester usurps the original British pronunciation (Woo-stuh) and makes Wuss-ter (or, commonly, Worse-ter) law. The prominence of a certain basketball team prevents people from properly referring to the Celtic languages and cultures as kell-tick—not to throw the state of Massachusetts under the bus or anything.
Shade-throwing aside, I’m only trying to say that speakers of all languages are guilty of the same thing. Some are just equipped with the sway to make their mistakes—or what might be considered mistakes—the very parameters by which we measure our correctness.
According to Shiri Lev-Ari’s 2010 study, people judge statements uttered by native speakers of English as more credible than those uttered by non-native speakers. She reasoned that the “processing difficulty” involved in listening to accented English somehow causes people to perceive trivial statements delivered by non-native speakers as less credible. The effect didn’t result from stereotypes and prejudice, she argued, as it occurred even in a condition where an accented messenger simply recited the statements from a native-speaking source.
Putting aside the prevalence of stereotypes outside of the study, it seems linguistic inequalities stem from some innate aversion we have to difficulty. If something proves hard to understand, we shy away from it at best and think less of it at worst. Non-native speakers are constantly disbelieved, disadvantaged, and disregarded because it’s easy to do that to things or people or thick accents that we find difficult.
A few weeks ago, in a fiction workshop, I shared a story of the generally and culturally ambiguous variety (in other words, I wrote about Taiwan). In the story, a couple’s relationship is ruptured gradually by a series of past letters from one party’s ex. Assuming my predominantly white class wouldn’t object to Googling and learning a Chinese character, I signed off the letters with a single Chinese character, which explicitly revealed the sender’s identity.
Come time for the workshop, I discovered that the pointedly unambiguous detail probably confused the most. Some found it unnecessarily puzzling and suggested I specify the sender’s identity. Meanwhile, several others thought the Chinese character was a witty conceit on my part to reinforce the sameness of two characters and further steep the story in ambiguity.
“[The] use of the character for the name in the sign-off was an absolutely brilliant way to engage with multilingualism and the lack of understanding of your classroom audience,” one classmate wrote in his comments.
When I wrote the piece, I wasn’t trying to take advantage of my classmates’ “lack of understanding”—I just thought they’d make the effort to understand. People go to crazy lengths to decode David Foster Wallace’s obscure, fragmentary references, but when it comes to copying and pasting a Chinese character into the Google search bar, they hit a wall.
Think about how the most authentic Chinese restaurants in the States have the tackiest graphic design, how what would you like to order barrels out under the weight of a heavy accent. Think about how the slightly elongated pauses, occupied by the spaces between each word, kindle your culinary trust rather than intellectual distrust.
Think about how we expect immigrants to assume a certain us-ness in some settings but demand absolute authenticity, or them-ness, in others. Why don’t you hold on to your culture, says the foot stomping it out. Think about how this isn’t exactly news.
In fourth grade, my friend stopped spelling her name as “Eri” and began going by “Eli” instead, frustrated at our American teachers and pseudo-American students’ inability to roll out the Japanese consonant situated somewhere between r and l. This move somewhat backfired, as unsuspecting teachers began instead to render her not just foreign but also a boy—almost always Ee-lie upon the first roll call of the school year.
For a while, slumped comfortably in the throne of Anglo-American nomenclature, I couldn’t understand why Eli felt the need to type an extra three letters under “Preferred Name” whenever asked. Similarly, I wondered why people never seem to grow desensitized to others butchering their names.
As I turned my own name around, examining its shape on my lips and the way breaths and vibrations collapsed into four syllables, I realized that I had been butchering my own last name for the past nineteen years. When coupled with my first name, the surname Yang comes out like bang or dang, rather than Aang or pong, as it should. In fact, it almost makes me uncomfortable when people pronounce my name right—there’s something about the way the harsh Yang supplants the whitey-tightie Emily for space in my mouth, silent g hanging in the air like an afterthought, leaving something to be desired. I don’t know what it is I desire.
Think about language as a battleground. Think about language as the site of revolution. Think about pidgin languages, the Cockney accent, International Sign Language, Turku, Tok Pisin. Think about revolution. Think about revolution in Chinese. Think about how “[revolutionary] movement” in Chinese also means sport or exercise. Think about how every foreign sound your mother your father the oba-san at the marketplace lets out is an exercise in revolution. Think about how the more I listen to the Korean girl in my section speak in her accent, the more I begin to understand, quicker, more accurately, more easily. Think about how an exercise in vocal cords or a few neural pathways or revolution is no different from aerobic exercise. Think about how you haul yourself to the gym three times a week and try and you try and it gets easier.