Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Some thoughts after reading Zadie Smith on "Speaking in Tongues"

I was deeply moved by Zadie Smith's article "Speaking in Tongues" in the February 26, 2009, issue of the New York Review of Books. She covers a lot of ground as she discusses her own shifting accent (from working-class London to Cambridge), as well as Pygmalion, Barack Obama, and a dose of Shakespeare, among other things.

Her main focus is on ways in which people find themselves between "voices," as she did in her move from London to Cambridge, for example, or as Obama describes of himself in his books. It made me wonder about what ways I might be between different voices. Although I am a child of a university professor and a librarian who has pretty much been in the middle to upper-middle class my whole life, I have experienced some doubling of my voice at various points in my life.

For example, I lived in an England for almost a year when I was nine years old. Coming from California, I was confronted by people who spoke an entirely different English than mine (and I have the anecdotes to prove it). But by the end of nine months in Leamington Spa, I had a thick Midlands accent, as did my sisters, and when we went back to the U.S. (summer of '74), our voices seemed as striking to the Americans we met as our American voices had seemed to the English kids when we had arrived in England. For at least a decade, I could still slip into my Midlands accent pretty much at will. (For some reason, the word I could use to help me get the accent right was "leisure.")

After England, we moved to Ohio. Despite a year in Leamington, I was still basically a California hippy kid, and that was not a good type of person to be in Ottawa Hills, Ohio, in the mid-1970s. (It probably still isn't!) Being almost completely rejected by your peers can generate a bit of double-voicedness as well, as you start to talk to the people around you with a much different voice than you use to talk to yourself. Throughout my life since then, I have gone through phases of having long hair and phases of having short hair, and as I said to a friend recently, I wish people would notice the long-haired side of my personality even when I have short hair (and—or perhaps especially—vice versa).

But there's one important sense of "speaking in tongues" that I am completely aware of that Zadie Smith does not discuss in her article: bi- and multilingualism. I am a native speaker of English, but I live in a German-speaking city, and I speak German on a daily basis. I also speak French (though nowhere near as regularly). My children speak English (which they mostly get from me), German (which they mostly get from their mother), and Basel German (which they learn at day care, then use in kindergarten and school). The multiple voices of such an environment make the shifts that Smith discusses as potentially something everyone could experience to some degree into something that everyone in the community experiences on a daily basis. (Even those who speak Basel German most of the time also speak some High German pretty regularly, and they experience it as a significant, even irritating shift, as many Baslers have told me over the years.)


Anonymous said...

Was also struck by this and posted on it here:

Was interested in her conclusion about the stages of development of "a certain kind of voice", which ends:

"And then the final stage, which I think of as the mark of a certain kind of genius: the voice relinquishes ownership of itself, develops a creative sense of disassociation in which the claims that are particular to it seem no stronger than anyone else’s."

Yes, very interesting discussion for the multi-lingual, multi-accented, multi-cultured, multi-whatevered...

Anonymous said...

I can identify with what she says: My parents are from different islands in the Caribbean (with different accents and different words for the same things, e.g. avocado/butter pear), but I was born in Liberia, so for the first 10 years of my life I spoke Liberian English (which is a pidgin English) with non-family members and 'standard' English with my immediate family as well as at school. (My mother, who is an English teacher, made sure that we knew the difference.)

I too lived a year in England (in London) after we left Africa, and remember a cousin in the U.S. telling me that I was getting a British (cockney) accent. Then we left England and moved to Switzerland the summer I turned thirteen, and the focus soon became learning German (and of course Swiss German) as quickly as possible. For some reason, I think our mother's accent won, because my siblings and myself now had no one to speak Liberian English to (and my dad's Grenadian accent is too unique). From the moment we moved to Basel, we only spoke and practiced my mother's standard English at home.

Now when I hear someone speak Liberian English it just sounds so exotic to me and I can imitate it, but I can no longer remember the unique vocabulary that comes along with it such as 'scabu' for a bald head, etc. (A former Liberian classmate whom I'm in touch with in the U.S. had to remind me what the word meant.) It's complicated indeed.

Dave King said...

Some food for thought there. I shall have a ponder!

Barbara Ruth Saunders said...

My parents are educators, so upper-middle-class American tongue is native to me. The shocker was how stilted upper-middle-class body language is when compared to lower-middle-class body language. I did not notice it while I was a high school jock or a college hippie. I have never been able to adjust to the physical constraint it takes to seem normal in formal professional situations.