I so often hear sentiments like, “Oh, but your accent is so mild/strong/faint/nonexistent”. My best friend teases me because I sound “so foreign now”. I’ve been told that I sound like I am “twanging” to impress people. (Note: there is no dictionary definition for what “twang” means to Jamaicans – it is essentially a horribly, awful sound of someone attempting to sound foreign.) And then I listen to people who have lived away from Jamaica for years … decades. And they all sound as if they’d not left the island … ever. And that sometimes makes me feel like the sellout I think a lot of people think of me as. I’m not; and I am going to explain why it is I “sound so foreign already”.
You see, the thing is, most of us, when speaking to people who share cultural imagery and language with us, speak really fast and in shortcuts. When I talk to my husband, or my best friend, or people who are Jamaican, I use the word “thing” a lot, for example. In fact, one of the funniest moments I remember from when a former close friend told stories about her schooling in the US was with that word. Jamaicans (used to?) have this habit of saying, “Aaaaaaahmmm…. ting deh” (and it sounds exactly like how you might imagine it – long and drawled). This friend regaled us with a funny story of how she walked up to a student who was from the US and went, “Aaaaaaahmmm … ting deh …” and got such an odd look that everyone broke up laughing because … well, what the hell does that even mean? To a Jamaican, it simply means that you are trying to say something (a name or reference to some obscure event or person or fact) and you can’t quite remember what it is, so you fill the silence with sounds.
If we dissect our everyday speech, we’d realise very quickly how many assumptions about the other person’s knowledge we make. That was never brought closer to home to me than when I married into the military. Hubby and I talk about PCSing (PCS = Permanent Change of Station; the military process of being reassigned and moved to a new military installation) all the time. I’ve said it to my best friend no less than 5 times in the last 8 years. But every single time I say it, I have to explain what that means because it is so alien to him. Which is fine … it’s expected … it’s normal. And it exemplifies that cultural nuance that we often ignore when we talk within our respective cultures.
I guess on some subliminal level I have always been aware of cultural and sub-cultural differences when talking to people. As a result, I end up doing everything I know how to do to ease that cross-cultural interaction so that each person gets the least amount of friction in that interaction, the end result hopefully being that the content is memorable and not so much the people or the mechanics.
Does that make sense?
Lemme try again…
I try to talk to you in a way that I know you will find little to no difficulty understanding me so that we aren’t caught up in who we are and focus, instead, on the what of the conversation. What that boils down to for me moving to the US and “suddenly sounding so foreign” is that to you, my fellow yaadies, I sound like a sellout but to everyone else outside of Jamaica, I sound … understandable. And to you, my new US family, I simply sound like I’ve been here for a while and “lost my accent” because I don’t sound like any other Jamaican you’ve ever spoken to.
Don’t get me wrong … sounding Jamaican is something I wish I could do all the time. This is evidenced by the fact that now that my husband is a bit better attuned to Jamaican accents and words I now speak more like a Jamaican when with him. I am pedantic, however, and I’d rather get on to the next milepost in the conversation than spend double time explaining what I just said because you didn’t understand clearly because I spoke too fast/used a word you don’t know/made a reference to something you have no knowledge of (side note: ” … because … because …” ugh – inner grammar nerd screaming in agony).
In the end, think of my “accent” as just me being typical introvert me wanting to get to the substance as quickly as possible so we can all get on with our day.
Ideally, it would be culturally enriching to spend time explaining those differences in an edifying way but those opportunities don’t often present themselves and when circumstances don’t allow for that, we have to focus on the what rather than the who. Know what I mean?