The cadence of our speech, our accent, is often a marker of where we come from. What country, or even what region of a country. Sometimes, an accent may be an indicator of not only where we are from, but also of where we may have lived outside of our country of origin. Some accents are described as being rough and thick, while others are said to be sexy and pleasing. Guttural or heavy. Lilting, undulating, or sing-song. Some are more well-known than others, easily recognizable, having spread far and wide internationally; some of the others, I imagine, have remained in the confines of small, remote villages. My own Jamaican accent is all of the above, depending on how discerning the listener is, or depending on where in the world I am. Whom I’m talking with, or even what mood I am in, also nuances how my base Jamaican accent sounds when my words pop out of my mouth. The choice of how I modulate my voice is usually not deliberate. The situation I am in at a given time automatically selects how I speak.
On one of my first trips to the United States during my formative years of life in Jamaica, I popped into a fast-food store to ask for change to make a phone call. Those were the pre-cell phone days, when public payphones were clustered in twos and threes at almost every other street intersection in the large cities. I whipped out my dollar bill and asked the cashier if she could exchange it for four quarters. Ironic that I seemed to have spoken to her through an extremely efficient Chinese telephone, for she asked me, once she took my dollar, what size cone I wanted. Quarters went into the phone at the speaker end, but came out as ice-cream cone at the other end. My Jamaican accent was not working the magic I would later discover it could… I was forced to contort the inflection of my words to sound like the American cowboys in the movies I grew up watching so that she could understand. It worked, for she apologized and promptly forked over the quarters.
That lesson served me well, even though I had to go through it several times over, to the point, today, where switching accents is automatic. Almost like mastering a foreign language so well that you don’t have to mentally flip through the grammar lessons and the vocabulary imbibed in school while speaking, but automatically come up with the right words, strung together properly, so that you make sense in your conversation. So now, whenever I have to talk to machines when I try to get customer service of some company on the phone, I know to put on some semblance of an American accent when I tell them what I need or to give them my phone number. And sometimes my pseudo accent, because it is not real, still confuses the machines, for I invariably hear, “Sorry, I did not get that. Say your telephone number again, please, using this format…” Shucks! How many more times should I speak clearly, and slowly? Can I be any clearer, or any slower? Sometimes I am tempted to curse, “You idiotic robot, how come I understand your drab, monotonic, cold clip, but you cannot understand my accent?”
Patwah is my first language. It is the one I grew up speaking as a child. Though my father, decidedly British-influenced, insisted that my siblings and I speak “proper” English at home, it was Patwah that I spoke with my friends in the street or in the schoolyard. I am perfectly bilingual in both, and each has its own kind of accent. In the early years, my English was patterned from a combination of the influence of my British expat teachers — who were many in our schools right after Jamaica gained independence from Great Britain – my father, and the radio announcers of the day. You would never hear Patwah in formal, official settings. So, it was easy to develop a total grasp of English. My accent, not so much my English but my Patwah accent, are very much of St. Thomas, for I grew up in that rural, eastern parish and had all of my pre-tertiary schooling there. Accents quite different from those of St. Elizabeth, on the southern coast of Jamaica, or those of the famous Upper St. Andrew, in the hills above Kingston. So, perhaps this combination of influences, plus those from having lived in England for a few years, and now the United States, have all come together and contributed to making my accent kind of unique. Perhaps that would explain why I am sometimes told I don’t have a typical Jamaican accent. My usual response to anyone who expresses this view is, “Catch me when I am home in Jamaica, or talking to my friends or relatives on the phone.” Who would have thought that an accent could be the cause of so much mix-up?
I am on now on a plane flying back from Trinidad to Miami, and my mind is spinning the kaleidoscope of situations I have been in during the last few days I have been on the island; I pause on a comment a lady made to me after I had made a speech at an awards ceremony in Port of Spain. I had done my best to deliver my message with clarity, articulating my words and modulating my tone for maximum effect. Of course, it was not too difficult to do, for my years of drilling in enunciation sessions and poetry recitals during primary school in Jamaica were still paying off. Can you imagine, back then we had classes in enunciation? And penmanship too? The lady came up to me and said, “Ooh, I like your accent.” Say what? But, I was not shocked, as it was a comment I had gotten repeatedly over my years of living abroad, and under different circumstances — in professional settings, at school, and socially.
Maybe the first time I became really aware of my accent, and of the potential benefits of the lilt we are said to have, was after I had made a presentation on behalf of my class group at Trinity College in Dublin. At the time, I was living in Brussels and was an Open University student there, but had to do a residency in Dublin. Presentation done, I regained my seat at my group table, and Conor said to me, “You will need to do all of our group presentations, for everyone was listening so intently to your accent that even if you chatted shit they would not have noticed!” I took it as a compliment, though the opposite could have been true! But, knowing the smart-ass that was Conor, I stuck with the compliment decision. It felt better.
Years later when I moved to the United States, I worked briefly with a marketing research company in Central Florida. One of the first studies I did was one for Disney as part of a feasibility study the entertainment giant was doing for a new feature at one of their theme parks in Orlando. I am happy to say that that feature was implemented and seemed rather successful, so much so that every time I read about it, or saw visitors mooning about it, my head would swell with pride, knowing that I had a hand in it. But, I digress. After I completed the research and submitted the findings, some of the executives visited our office to meet the team behind the study, as they were very happy with the outcome. Anyhow, on the first visit, I was introduced as the director of the study, and I received their compliments. After a few words passed my lips to say thanks and to give my spiel, one of them paused and said, “Jamaica! I know that accent. Beautiful! I have been to Jamaica and love it. If we decide to commission your office for any more studies, we are going to make a special request of the president to have you do it. I just want to be able to hear your accent all the time.” Disney commissioned some additional studies, which I worked on, but I think it was more the demonstrated quality of my work on the initial one rather than my accent that yielded us the repeat jobs. Or, wasn’t it?
Perhaps the most shocking comment I had about my accent, was one I received from an admirer in one of the countries I have lived in. She was live and direct – as we say in Jamaica – and so much so that I was not sure what she meant initially. Her pronouncement flew over my head, but it sank in after a fleeting second, once I saw the look that went with it. Perhaps any of my high school English Literature teachers would have had a field day having us come up with the part of speech that best described the comment. Adjectival metaphor? Modified simile? Do those exist? Mr. Riversmoore, or maybe Mr. Lehane would be keen. Maybe not Mrs. Sears, for she was married to a priest, and so it would have been so shocking she would not have been able to see through it at all, just like me initially. My admirer boldly said to me, “You have a drop-drawers accent…” Thank goodness, my wife does not read my blogs…