Accent politics – part 2
I didn’t fully grasp how political accents could be until much later. In a novel Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, a Nigerian woman who returned from Britain put on a strong British accent to be treated respectfully by men. Another example was when I lived in London, my flatmate of Jamaican ancestry had to emphasize his already proper middle-class British accent when the police stopped him to question him about his car. He was a salesperson and wore a suit. I heard many different accents in Britain, but the kind we heard on BBC news particularly had the power in the world as Tokyo, Osaka, and Kyoto accents did in Japan. It represented the supremacism of an empire that once held many parts of the world under its reign.
My British accent was still underdeveloped to be authoritative when I was in Germany, but I learned to get German people to listen to me in different linguistic tactics. Example. When I had to call an insurance company, I first apologized for not speaking German and asked if they spoke English. When they did, I said each word carefully to communicate my inquiry. They’d often tell me what I asked for was not in the system or was logistically impossible. Then, I explained my situation slowly, sometimes repeating words. They might still hesitate to make an irregular transaction. Finally, I used my Japanese accent to plead desperately that they were the only people who could save me. They’d then agree to help me solve the issue, if not willingly.
This worked often. The point was I spoke each word clearly and slowly, which meant the accents were neutralized, factoring out the linguistic geopolitics. Maybe my final plea in a Japanese accent appealed to their sense of patronization, like my landlady changed her attitude toward me from defensive to protective. But each conversation required so much energy that I was exhausted and started to shun people altogether.