What is in an accent anyway? Turns out that there’s a lot of things. For some, it is a signifier of higher class and poshness acquired from studying in elite schools complete with elocution classes. For others, it is a source of anxiety and a sign of lower status. Whilst for others, it is a badge of identity that they wear very proudly.
As a young Kenyan woman who studied and lived in England, I was deep in the world of accents and race. Most of the time, I enjoyed life abroad (except when it was bitterly cold, windy and snowy). The date of my first PhD conference presentation in London was around the corner and I was a bit anxious because I had been warned by several people that Westerners (especially Americans) don’t understand our Kenyan accent very well. I prepared for the conference anxiously but diligently focused on the content. Come conference day, I had decided I would request for a translator in case no one heard anything I was presenting on. However, I was greatly shocked when it emerged that diverse people drawn from UK, Canada, USA, China, India, France and Italy could actually understand my Kenyan accented conference presentation very well. Even more shocking, a small group of British and Americans actually came up to me after the presentation and commented that they liked the accent and could hear every word.
There is significant research evidence that accents are used as markers of social class and social identity. One recent example is a study of Kisii-Kenyans living in the USA, in contrast to many previous studies of Africans and foreigners living in the West, the study discovered that the Kisii perceived their Kenyan accent as a badge of identity rather than as a badge of social exclusion. This is interesting and not what I expected. I am still very curious as to whether Kenyans living in Kenya have the same view. In locally televised comedy shows, it is common for comedians to make good fun of the variations of the local vernaculars. This is because mispronunciation of words such as mboof or boof to mean pouffe are common in some ethnic groups. For many older people who grew up in the rural areas, the vernacular influence on their English is notable and largely socially accepted and even expected. However, this does not mean that there is no social anxiety for some of the speakers.
In contrast to the comedy shows, a good number of popular urban radio and television programs in Kenya are presented in feigned Queen’s English and American accents. In social discussions, it is common to hear people make reference to the British accent (especially Queen Elizabeth’s) as superior and pleasant. As I have discussed before on UrbanCritique, a good number of people asked me why I failed to develop a Queen’s English accent during my time studying at the universities of Warwick and Leicester. They were surprised by my Kenyan drawl. The best question to attempt to answer is whether a Queen’s English or American accent increases your chances of success in Kenya. This is something the young people in waithood would be very curious to discover as they seek out ways to increase their job marketability.
Should you consider “wenging”( feigning a British or American accent) to get ahead in Kenya, especially within media spaces? I wouldn’t do it and I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone but I am not blind to the idealisation of the West that is alive and well in most contexts of Kenya. I have heard people with thick vernacular and mother tongue accents celebrate that their children have finally made it to British and American education system schools and are well on the way to learning proper english accents. I didn’t hear them relay any concern that the child is unable to speak their vernacular.
Caldwell, R. (2014, June 9).What does your accent say about you? Retrieved from https://www.britishcouncil.org/voices-magazine/what-does-your-accent-say-about-you
Makora, N. (2014). Accentedness isn’t foreign speech, it’s a badge of identity. Xlibris
Mugglestone, L. (2003). Talking proper: The rise of accent as social symbol. Oxford University Press on Demand.