Behind a stack of documents at the Telkom office in Knysna, a voice asked: “Where are you from?”
“Originally from Port Elizabeth” I said as I signed the last piece of paper.
“You are from South Africa? I thought you were from Russia!” she shouted with a laugh while she smacked a bunch of papers on the counter, “you have a very strange accent”.
I might have a strange accent but Russian? No.
There was a time when a comment like that would make me tap the Google button to search for a speech therapist. Mountain out of a molehill. True story. I kid you not. But then I realised that there is actually a little bit of a tale behind my strange accent and every single stamp in my passport has made its own contribution.
It all started somewhere in my mouth in the late eighties…it all started with the ‘R’.
I had a bit of a uvular trill since I opened my mouth. Wait, that’s a lie. I had a lot of that uvular trill thing. A uvular trill is commonly known as ‘bry; in Afrikaans and it is basically just a lazy tongue chilling in your mouth instead of trilling against the roof of your mouth.
According to my parents not everyone could understand my mumble (or rather, my rrrrumble). But it got better. By the time I was nine a speech therapist visited my school and told me I should go for some speech therapy. Like a true rrrrrrebel, I stood there, hands on my hips, and told her oh-so-proudly: “no, my grandpa is saying ‘Rgggrrgr’, my dad is doing the exact same and I want to do it too”.
And so I did. I did my trill my way.
But then I left for South Korea in 2009 to teach English and before I could even open my mouth my co-worker said, “You are from South Africa but we want an American accent. You have to teach the students American English”.
Oh good Lincoln, American English you say?
Like a good little soldier I obeyed. I did the American English while the South African English battled it out in my mouth every now and then. I got weird looks when I explained that ‘colour’ is ‘color’ and confused faces stared at me when I pronounced basketball as ‘/ˈbɑː.skɪt.bɔːl/’ instead of ‘/ˈbæs·kɪtˌbɔl/’ with the much harsher A’. And of course, without disappointment, the stubborn tongue still lazed around every trill.
A year and a half later I fell in love with another language while I taught English, listened to Korean voices every day and spoke to my family in Afrikaans. I fell in love with Bahasa Indonesia. The South African ‘ja’ quickly turned into a ‘ya’ and before I knew it some Indonesian accent traits latched on to my English accent. Except for the ‘R’ of course, my stubborn tongue stayed dormant for every trill.
By that time it became quite clear that my accent was one big mix; according to one friend it had an identity crisis with one foot in the Southern Hemisphere and the other foot in the Northern Hemisphere.
After three years in Korea and a few months in Indonesia I returned to South Africa and was determined to ease back into my long forgotten South African accent. It happened slowly; the stubborn trill still lingered around and my identity-crisis-friend shouted at me over Skype when an ‘A’ came out too American.
But then I confused my accent a bit more when I left South Africa for Korea again. I tried my best to teach with my South African accent. Poor kids; after all the study guides, audio CDs and Hollywood, they never saw it coming.
My time in Korea came to an end and a year of travelling waited in line to mix things up a bit more while the stubborn trill accompanied me all the way and my identity-crisis friend still shouted “what’s happening with your accent!” time and again.
Luckily it all got better. Wait, that’s a lie.
If you fast forward a few decades from the first time I opened my mouth in the eighties to today you’ll be happy to hear that just the other day someone said something about my accent again. Instead of reaching for the Google button I decided, you know what; screw it and embrace it.
It’s my accent. It’s messy, it’s weird and it’s a one-size-fits-all. It is all part of me, part of the places I’ve visited, the people I’ve met and the experiences I’ve had. It is international, but it is my kind of international. The bits and pieces of accents and dialects, languages and out there pronunciations are all part of who I am.
Screw it and embrace it; from trill to thrill.
Just remember, if you ever meet a Korean with an incredibly *international accent I’m probably the one to blame. But I promise you, if you ask that kid to spell the word ‘neighbour’ he will most likely ask you, “do you want the American or the British spelling”.
Mountain out of a molehill. My accent is not THAT strange, it’s just a little bit *international with a stubborn trrrrill.
*international = My kind of international.