Accent: Badge of identity or shame?

Posted by | February 01, 2017 | Blog_Post, Cultural Commentary | 11 Comments

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.

Some Sources

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.

 

About Faith

Ph.D Media & Communication

11 Comments

  • Kennedy Njoroge says:

    Great piece Faith!! True to the word.

  • Esther Kibere says:

    Provoking and well researched paper. Fake “ascents” as I call them are a sign of low self esteem. The belief that other people’s articulation or pronunciation are better than mine. The unfortunate thing is that there are (many) varieties of English; British, American, Australian, etc. The question is which one am I faking? Simple solution enroll in a linguistic class and learn the proper diction and pronunciation.

  • Mercy Louis says:

    Lack of authenticity and pride in who you originally are..
    What makes you in matters of acsent.
    Stick to who you are always.
    Very good read Dr Faith.

  • Mercy Louis says:

    By the way it’s not just in English..
    Look our up country people when the go to coast or visit TZ for a week.. the come with”swahili acsents”
    Not suiting them at all.
    Fakeness.
    They laugh at us when we “shrab/shrub” but it’s out pride of identity.

  • Dr. Steve M Muyah says:

    Faith, this is a well done piece. I never thought of the “accent thing” as a big deal until you brought it up. I like the idea of accented-language as a badge of identity. I was recently surprised by the new Kenya educational reforms after 8-4-4 to teach kids foreign languages, French, Spanish, Arabic and Chinese etc. there is nothing wrong with teaching these foreign languages … but the focus to me should be teaching school kids especially at the beginners level, their “mother tongues.” It is more shameful to me to meet a young Nairobian or other who cannot communicate with grandma because s/he can only speak sheng and the acccented “so called” American, British, Australian English versions. I believe, those of us who had the opportunity of learning in class to read and write in vernacular were better prepared to operate culturally with more solidified identity.

    • Dr. Steve M Muyah says:

      Joy in Belgium responds to the piece:

      Very interesting read, Steve

      I find it somewhat one-sided, though! There’s an entire cohort of Kenyans w/ foreign accents who have been forgotten: people like Faith, Paul and I 😀 Most of what is written doesn’t fully apply to us or people like us. There are a lot of variables that haven’t been considered here. A more extensive extrapolation of the neo-colonisation of the modern Kenyan would have provided more insight. And no, I’m not simply referring to the pervasive nature of the so-called “Western Imperialism”…I’m referring more to the persuasion that anything from “majuu” (nje) is better (or worse), depending on your feelings and actual exposure to said Westerners.

      The piece is obviously written for a particular reader w/ a specific mindset about these sorts of issues. A deeper analysis of factors like: why do accents change, influence of the social sphere (Kenyan & abroad), as well as identity, education (formal and informal) and maybe performing a comparative study of different age groups who’ve spent time oversees (our parents versus us), speed of adopting a “foreign accent” in different Western countries etc., would’ve provided a deeper understanding on the issue.

      I’m not sure if Faith has read this, but for us, having foreign accents was a huge detriment in advancing in Kenya. Guess what? She’s in the media! For me, I was told that I thought I was better than other people (my interviewer) just because I spoke differently. Conclusions were made that I would take the interviewer’s job because of my foreign accent and within a few minutes of meeting me.

      Also, we lived near Village Market. Over there, I was treated better by service providers when I spoke in my normal accent (British-South African hybrid) than when I spoke in a Kenyan accent. In town, it was the opposite…

      It’s a complex issue. Still a very interesting read.

      Thanks so much for the article.

      Much love,

      J

      • Faith says:

        Dear Joy,

        This is very interesting and you introduce another very interesting angle to this very complex issue..One worthy of a much larger empirical study!

    • Faith says:

      Dr Muyah, It is interesting that schools are eager to identify with multiculturalism and anxious about foreign languages but the local languages are wanting. Even basic Kiswahili is very difficult for some students at International schools. It is good that you are proud of your roots and identity, many more of us can gain from that perspective.