Language Politics: Mind Your Accent

Language Politics: Mind Your Accent

African Languages
By Cynthia Ayeza, Uganda:

How does one begin to write about accent or the issue of accents? We've called people snobs, fake, wannabes and so on, but what really is our issue with accents; why do they irk us so much?

Growing up, specifically while in school, we had people around us that had travelled abroad and so acquired some form of accent, different from the typical Ugandan accent. One may ask if there is such a thing as a Ugandan accent. Perhaps there is. Being from Uganda, I can tell you that the people from Western Uganda have a different accent from the people hailing from Northern Uganda. This also differs from the people born and raised in Kampala, including those who may have attended a public or private school, or international school (these seem to be on the rise).

Back then, as is the case now, it was not uncommon to find someone who had visited America for a month and somehow returned with an American accent, seemingly incapable of speaking “normally”. The strange thing, however, was that even those who visited China would return with an American accent. It still happens.

Let me move it to South Africa. My few years here have brought me into contact with people who have never left the continent, let alone their country and yet have something of an American accent. I say something of an American accent because in some rare instances the “twang” is mis-delivered, which exposes them, but only slightly. If you have never been to America, did not attend an American school, and have never left your country, how then did you acquire an American accent? Did you acquire it from Days of Our Lives, The Bold and The Beautiful or perhaps more recently from the Kardashians' reality show? Allow me to share a comment I picked up from someone's Facebook status update. The person's comment was in response to a someone suggesting that Minister Naledi Pandor (South Africa) would make a great president for South Africa as a country.

“…Majority of ANC supporters are not into English especially her type of English. There is just a lot of reasons she won’t be President if under ANC unless she joins the DA. There she will fit in…”

For me, this comment is really about accent – and not so much a “type” of English. But there are types of English too but that will be a different article. Accents are a tricky issue. I've learned that people choose accents. People decisively choose how they want to speak. This may have to do with how they want to be perceived or even the groups within which they find themselves or even groups within which they want to fit.

When I came to South Africa, some people said I spoke well. I honestly still do not know what that means. While I think for some that may come off as a compliment, it was a very unsettling comment or “compliment” if you prefer. It made me wonder what “they” meant by “speak well”. Was it that I pronounced the words near to correct? I know for a fact that Ugandans (including myself) “battle” to pronounce English words correctly, and the fault lies in our schooling system. For example, in Uganda, the following words could all sound the same – heart, hut, hat, hurt; the same applies to hard, had and heard; you would have to rely on context to figure out what the person is trying to communicate. BUT that does not mean that they do not know what they are saying. Pronunciation has little to do with how smart a person is, and Ugandans are very smart.

The other group of people that stands out in their pronunciations and accents would be our Nigerian brothers (although sometimes easy to mix up with Ghanaians and other west African countries). Theirs is a distinct, heavy accent. However, when I did visit a company in Lagos, my first encounter with employees of that company had me wondering why so many Americans were employed there. But after a few minutes, the distinct native accent kicked in and only one America – a white one for that matter – was left.

When a white person says that a black person speaks well, I am tempted to ask for an explanation; do they mean that the person sounds more like them? And if a black person says to another black person that they speak well, one automatically gets the sense that they mean the person sounds more white than native African. Neither of them is complimenting the black person who “speaks well” in this instance – but they may think that they are complimenting them.

Here is something to consider: How is it that a born and bred in Africa white American will still have an American accent? How is it that a white South African is still unable to pronounce Xhosa or Zulu words without a “white” accent? Are their tongues incompatible with the South African indigenous sounds? Might it be a “superior-mentality” stubbornness at play?

Africa has some Francophone countries – black people who speak French exquisitely. Countries where Portuguese is spoken flawlessly. All over Africa, there are examples of Africans adapting to the other way of things but not the other adapting to African indigenousness. Perhaps it is in our brain's make or our tongues' ability to adapt. Whatever the case, accents draw attention to us, project a persona and invite people into our spaces either to embrace us or alienate us. For my part, I hope to continue to find out why people choose particular accents.

Founder and Editor in Chief of the Readers Cafe Africa

Comment (1)


    A fascinating feeling about how African languages relate led me to do a Google Search and curiosity about that image used above of popular African languages brought me to this page and Cynthia Ayeza's interesting article. From reading her, I'm fascinated again about the quality of her mind, her power of thought and her line of thinking. I would like to read more about her and her work. She was really on to something about how as Africans we tend to gravitate towards what may be considered superior accents when we speak foreign languages. Not just all foreign languages? I would like to study that further. But Ayeza's thesis did not escape me because it resonates well within my perceptions of language, politics and supremacy concepts and concerns. The history of colonisation of Africa retains palpable significance in the appreciation of the way Africans see themselves in the world and how language matters in determining identity, preferred, contrived or imposed!

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