Tuesday, September 27, 2011
September 27, 2011: Accent-uate the Positive
There are a variety of significant reasons, many addressed specifically and at length in those pieces compiled here under the “Book Posts” category, why I would and in my recent book did define 16th and 17th-century individuals like Alvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca and Mary Rowlandson as the first Americans. But if I were trying to boil down those complex combinations of factors, of experiences and identities, to representative moments, I would in both of their cases point to cross-linguistic conversations. De Vaca had many such conversations over the course of his nine years spent crossing the continent with a range of Native American tribes and communities; Rowlandson had her share as well during the few months she spent as a captive of the Wampanoag tribe during King Philip’s War, but her narrative of that captivity does feature one particularly striking such conversation: an exchange with King Philip himself, when the Wampanoag chief (and officially arch-enemy of Rowlandson’s Puritan community) asks her to “smoke it” (a peace pipe) with him, precipitating a series of moments in which Rowlandson sews various articles of clothing for Philip and other Wampanoags in exchange for food (some of which she then makes into a meal for her own “master” and his wife).
Rowlandson doesn’t specify whether those exchanges took place in English or Wampanoag, but the reality is almost certainly that they comprised a mixture of both languages—with each person’s version of the other culture’s language heavily accented, far from perfect, but finding a way to express his or her perspective to the other all the same. That reality would certainly likewise be the case for De Vaca’s exchanges with his Native interlocutors; for the conversations between Tisquantum (Squanto) and the Pilgrims that proved so vital to the Plymouth community’s survival in its harrowing early months; for the potentially fatal but ultimately beneficial dialogue between John Smith, Virginia Native chief Powhatan, Powhatan’s young daughter Pocahontas, and others; and for so many of the foundational conversations on which American identity and community has been built from its earlier moments. Each of those conversations had plenty of specific and distinct contexts and details, but it’s entirely fair to say that each was conducted in multiple, heavily accented languages, with members of different cultures and communities speaking and reaching across the linguistic and other gaps between their identities to find their way to a hesitant and partial and fragile but damn crucial common ground.
It’s with all of this in mind that I read, with great frustration, a recent story about a longstanding Arizona policy to investigate public school teachers to determine if their accents (largely Hispanic ones in that state, of course) are sufficiently muted to allow them (in the state’s eyes) to successfully instruct their students. The first and not at all insignificant question that comes to mind is what exactly the nationwide response would be if the state of Alabama instituted a similar policy for Southern accents, or the state of New York for Long Island ones; and what exactly the difference is between those accents and an Arizona Hispanic one. But clearly present as the racial and ethnic discrimination behind such a policy might be, even more fundamental here is the assumption that non-accented English is the norm in America, that the accent is a strange or foreign element to our language. Part of an answer would be to highlight the diverse and evolving but always present accents with which English has been spoken here throughout the centuries. But even better would be the recognition that if we have a national language at all, it’s not English, nor any other single language, nor even a multicultural mélange of all our languages—but rather that an American language exists, when and where it most genuinely does, in conversations between and across and through those distinct languages, heavily accented but speaking to each other nonetheless.
PS. Three links to start with:
1) A New York Times story on the Arizona controversy: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/09/25/us/in-arizona-complaints-that-an-accent-can-hinder-a-teachers-career.html?_r=1&adxnnl=1&adxnnlx=1316998274-DKT0JUOY%2FXOPiOkT4YMjWw
2) Rowlandson’s narrative (the conversation with Philip is in the “Eighth Remove”): http://www.library.csi.cuny.edu/dept/history/lavender/rownarr.html
3) OPEN: What do you think?