The Authority of Accent
Kathleen Heil


I know a Brazilian who speaks English with a Kiwi accent, because he lived in New Zealand when he was sixteen. I once knew a Kiwi who spoke English with an English accent, because his mother paid for elocution lessons, or—conjecture—there was a teaspoon of self-loathing wrapped up in his identity. I speak English with an American accent, I say North American because I am North American, América when I speak Spanish refers to the Americas, as in South America, but I am from the South of North America where, to the Spanish, all people are yanquis. My Spanish accent is inconsistent or lacking in any fixed identity because I learned much of my Spanish from South Americans who lived in Madrid at the same time I did, but I couldn’t locate their accents with any consistency, so I chose as default my own voice which is gringa in América and guiri in España and gives me no authority. I speak Italian with a proper Italian accent because in Italy I had no identity other than the standard university voice, which is proper in its neutrality, although it is, of course, not neutral at all, and what does proper mean—property, propriety—anyway, my accent engendered complimenti; to achieve it I repeated the phrase Cara, c’è una zanzara into a microphone while a machine recorded my shortcomings and repeated them back to me in my headphones, I no longer have my shortcomings repeated into headphones, although sometimes they are repeated in my head, or are repeated into other ears by other people (which I dislike), or into my ears (which I dislike strongly), and sometimes people question my authority, and sometimes I question theirs, although we never dispute the existence of mosquitoes, although they exist in difference places to different degrees and with different degrees of consistency—much like authority. The Portuguese I speak and now forget is with a Brazilian accent, which I would like to sound carioca because I think the way people from Rio de Janeiro speak sounds pretty, but the woman who repeated the phrases into my headphones while I was learning spoke a nasal, rural Portuguese, from the state of São Paulo but not the city, which is an accent that both Paulistas and Cariocas dislike strongly. My Italian friend speaks English without an Italian accent; he lives in England and speaks English without an English accent. My American (North American) friend speaks Spanish with a Spanish accent, and English with an American accent, but never English with a Spanish accent unless he is joking.



Once in a bar in Madrid a guy asked me to translate ¿Quieres echar un polvo conmigo? into English—literally, meaning he actually asked me that, not that he wanted a literal translation, which is what I gave him—he was looking for the meaning, really, which is what we usually mean when we say literally in conversation. The Oxford American Dictionary would say, if it could speak, In recent years, an extended use of literally has become very common, where literally is used deliberately in nonliteral contexts, for added effect. I said he had to say, Do you want to make the dust with me? which is not quite literal, since echar literally has no literal meaning. This was a question not of accent but one of translation. If you go to you can get closer to the meaning of what he asked me—that is, if you have access to a computer as well as to the internet, which says something about you and your authority and your access to money. When I left the bar the guy asked me if I wanted to make the dust with him, in English; perhaps I would’ve said yes in Spanish, but I doubt it; literally I said no in English which means no in Spanish and my accent is the same for both.



I once knew an Italian who loved the English language who never asked me how to translate Vuoi fare una scopata? into English, for which I was grateful, but I don’t remember his accent in English or Italian—maybe it was Umbrian, for he lived in Umbertide, but I don’t know. I taught him the words schlep and tchotchke, which he liked and we made up a phrase, schleppiamo domani, which we never did, which I found funny. It isn’t funny when someone makes fun of your accent, it makes you angry, no one has ever made fun of my accent when I speak English, although as a child I was sometimes teased for speaking too quickly and for mumbling and still I sometimes do both, but once in Spain I was in a class where someone made fun of what he perceived to be my American accent when I spoke Spanish; he said the words sangria and sol with an accent deemed appropriate to a certain categorical way of speaking, even though I prefer tinto de verano to sangria and rarely talk about the sol. If you have an accent in any language that doesn’t match the accent of the person listening to you speak, you may be thought to be stupid, or to have less authority, which sometimes but not always amounts to the same thing. In Arkansas where I now live, some people say used to could, as in, I used to could speak with authority but forgot how, although I’ve never heard anyone use used to could in reference to speaking anything, usually it’s used in reference to having once been but no longer being capable of doing something, unlike fixin’ to, which in Arkansas is used in a way similar to going to, and I like both and use neither. Around my friend who speaks English with an Alabama accent, I start to speak English with an Alabama accent, which is embarrassing because I am from New Orleans, or just outside the city, and people always ask me when I tell them where I’m from, How come you don’t have an accent? and I say, half-joking, My parents are both Yankees, meaning they come from the north, or is it the North, but there are people from New Orleans with parents from New Orleans who sound just like me. Speaking with an Alabama accent when I’m not from Alabama around a woman from Alabama when we’re in Arkansas is embarrassing, it implies that I am overly impressionable and have no sense of my own identity, although speaking with a madrileño accent in Madrid around madrileños would impress people, it would imply that I am very adaptable and capable of asserting my identity in a different culture in a different country in an accent that sounds as if I belong to their geography.



A professor once told me Ben-ya-mean and not Ben-ja-min is the correct way to say the name of Herr Walter from the twentieth century, I had heard that pronunciation before and disliked it so I resisted but did not challenge him because it is considered bad form to question authority, and so I mumbled my reason for saying Ben-ja-min and not Ben-ya-mean to someone who didn’t question my authority, because I have very little and she wasn’t really listening. I said, if Wim Wenders, who speaks fluent English although he still has an accent, calls himself Whim Whenders when he speaks English and not Vim Venders, then why not say Ben-ja-min and not Ben-ya-mean when we speak English. I say Bar-sel-ona and not Barth-el-ona when I speak Spanish or English because I find lisping embarrassing, although I do say Vim Venders and not Whim Whenders, although I do say klee-shay for cliché and not cli-tchay, which is what the Spanish say because they refuse French phonemes, although I don’t, although I refuse the German inconsistently. I once dated a German guy who always said wineyard instead of vineyard, which makes sense if you think about it, because if you think about the logic of English, it makes no sense. I once said to a waiter in Bavaria that I would have die Spargelcremesuppe and he asked me, Would you like bread with that? but I didn’t understand him, I was just reading off the menu with a German accent, I guess convincingly, since he asked me the question in German, and I said, Sorry? in English, I could have just said, I’ll have the cream of asparagus soup, in English, the translation of the German was written on the menu, in English, and then he would have said to me, in English, Would you like bread with that? and I would’ve said, Yes, but instead I tried to fake a language that I don’t posses.



Once a woman from New York was lost in a city in Italy where she found me and then asked me, in English, for directions which I gave her, in English, and she thanked me and then said that my English was excellent, and I thanked her for the compliment, but I think she meant my accent. For some reason she didn’t expect me to speak with such authority, and for some reason I didn’t take exception to her expectation.