Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Are you Bending Over for Whitey, or Just Talented?

When your friends and loved ones return from abroad they often bring along gifts, goodies and some rather interesting, and at times exaggerated tales. Occasionally, one or two may also bring along a brand new accent. This has always struck me as curious since what an American or Englishman cannot achieve in a lifetime spent in the East, is promptly undertaken by one of “us” who spends just a few semesters in the West.

Is this necessarily a bad thing? We Sri Lankans left behind to fret about the dying economy and intensifying ethnic conflict, often view with suspicion and contempt those of our kind who achieve the feat of successfully adopting a foreign accent. “Oh gosh, guess who came back speaking like Yankee Doodle?” or “I didn’t know the stiff-upper-lip was contagious?” are common sentiments articulated in private.

However, I find that the phenomenon of accent switching can be attributed to two main reasons.

  1. Our Colonial Hangover
  2. Our Hospitable Nature

The reason many of us find ourselves switching to a ripe British accent as soon as we set foot on those green hills of England, is primarily due to the fact that a Whiteman’s accent is seen to be of a slightly higher and more prestigious standard than our own. It also has a lot to do with self esteem and how comfortable one is with the way he or she articulates the English language. Studying or living abroad is not necessarily the reason one speaks with this accent, but rather the valid excuse one uses to justify the switch.

The second reason I have listed relates to the most common excuse given by those who engage in an accent makeover. It is simply that persons abroad fail to understand the Sri Lankan accent thus requiring us to change our accent in order to facilitate greater understanding. This of course is entirely true as I have experienced it myself. However, what is curious is that Westerners living here for decades on end never seem to make this same switch. In fact those of us who speak to them mysteriously alter our own accents, momentarily adopting a strangely refined British or American tone without even the slightest affiliation to those nations.

Some of you may call this “doormat-like behaviour”, but I would like to remind you that not all people can achieve this feat. It takes true talent to speak in multiple accents without even the odd acting lesson for assistance. Some of us choose not to change our accents, while others simply can’t help the change. However, time and again we have proven our potential for flexibility.

I find it more likely that this whole accent switching maneuver is part of a common potential possessed by all Sri Lankans to morph in order to fit in better with the outside world. This is probably why we can get along with everyone else except ourselves.

Thank you for reading.