Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Accents

When I was sixteen, I traveled with my grandmother 'deep in the heart of Texas,' where she (and therefore I) had relatives. Among many others, I met some cousins of my mother, whose children were already married and in their twenties, and seemed old and exotic to me.  One couple I remember lived in a fancy Dallas apartment, did some kind of boring adult jobs, and cared about things I wasn't interested in yet, like tableware and furniture.  Their names were Eloise and Dudley.  Eloise was thin and dark and beautiful and Dudley was rather chubby and splay-footed and kind, and I wondered at their marriage, but they were affectionate and happy and laughed a lot. I remember one conversation in which we argued over how to say certain words.  Their conversation was peppered with 'y'all', and and 'ma'am's and dropped endings to words, and they thought my sister and I had strong accents when we spoke.  This surprised me because I'd never thought of ME having an accent before then.  As I argued, if you listen to people speak on TV, they sound like us.  That must mean ours is the proper way to speak English, right?  Right?

Years later, when Beve and I lived in Holland, we heard--more than once!--that Beve had the strongest American accent among the Americans.  Every time I'd hear someone say this, I'd tip my head and look up at him quizzically, kind of like a dog, trying to hear what it was in his inflections that those non-Americans heard that characterized as 'strong'.  Strong sometimes meant, you must know, difficult to understand, or hard to comprehend.  They couldn't hear what he was saying beneath his accent.  Beve, Beve, who speaks more slowly than about three-fourths of the people I've ever spoken to!  Certainly far, far more slowly than I do, but sometimes I was asked to re-say, just in English, mind you, what he had just said.

Accents.  I'm thinking about them today.  A month ago, down in Arizona, educators have begun targeting 'foreign-sounding' teachers for removal from teaching English. Apparently years ago, they introduced an entire Mexican-English department to facilitate the learning of English among the Latino population.  Sounds like a great thing to me, but what do I know? I don't live there.  I don't know all the issues involved, of course. And, because I've been a little pre-occupied with my own stuff lately, I didn't notice this, but today I'm thinking about it.  And I'm wondering what exactly constitutes a 'foreign-sounding' accent.  I could say that my cousins from Dallas have them.  Or the Oxford-educated folks who were born and raised in the heart of Britain.  The friends we have from Melbourne who have taught high school for twenty-five years, and the ministers of the gospel from the Baja. And there's my very own Beve, who apparently, for all I can't hear it myself, has a broad, flat and a board American accent that is quite hard to understand for non-native speakers.  Perhaps, and this is just my own puny, coughing brain thinking, someone with an accent one can understand, might be the best person to teach the language one is trying to learn.  But it's just a thought.

The thing is--the thing is (I can hear my father lean forward to emphasize his point here)--Jesus didn't have a very popular accent either.  "Can anything good come out of Nazareth?" Nathanael asked about him (John 1: 46).  "How can the Messiah come from Galilee?" others asked (John 7: 41).   Jesus may have been born in Bethlehem (right where the Messiah was supposed to have been born but his accent gave him away as Galilean.  As one not worth listening to. 

At least for those not discerning enough to listen beneath the cadence of the words to the meaning. Beneath the accent.  Hmm.  Beneath the accent.  I wonder if I do this.  Wow, there's a flash. I do it.  Perhaps a little more sophisticated or with a few more filters on my responses than this bald Arizona educators' initiative, but I think I do the same thing.  I think I discount people who don't speak the way I do.  I have some kind of internal hierarchy of accents that says one is good, another not so much.  Why, someone with a British accent could read the phone book and I'd probably think they were spouting high philosophy. But someone who grew up hard-scrabble in the back hills of West Virginia and can think far over my head about all things algebraic or scientific and I'll still imagine them hill-billies.

I wonder, I really wonder, if we'd listen to that man with the thick Galilean accent if he came walking into our town.  Or if we'd think of Him as from someplace too hick-ish, think of Him--just because of that accent (well, and the lack of formal education)-- as too uneducated and uncouth, to give a second listen.

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