Sunday, June 29, 2008

Code Switching and Authenticity

A good ninety-nine percent of the time - and more, perhaps, as my older relatives pass out of my life - I speak unaccented American English.  Nevermind that I don't differentiate pin and pen, Aaron and Erin, Ben and bin, when people guess, they say perhaps I'm from Vermont, and they never, ever, say Texas.

But then there's that one percent, when I'm speaking to my grandparents, or my cousins in Georgia, or when African American speech flips a switch in my head and suddenly I find myself responding with a Southern "yes, ma'am."  Linguists, I believe, call this code switching.  It's not a particularly remarkable phenomenon, but it comes with pretty good shock value.  It's always fun to see the look on a northeasterner's face when they hear you talk to your Southern grandpa for the first time.

But here's the thing.  I've never really had a southern accent or even a Texas accent.  I do remember training myself not to say y'all sometime in high school, but it's not as though I grew up with a drawl that I learned to conceal when I went north for college.

So, when I call the elderly sister of a prison I'm working with down here in Alabama, and I automatically drop into the slow, syrupy intonations of my mother's family, what am I doing?  I'm not faking it, exactly, and it's not as though I make a decision that this person ought to be addressed in a southern accent.  But it's not entirely unconscious either.  In my mind, the word "drop" describes what I do, I just let my voice fall into a different register, one that's higher and sweeter and lazier of pronunciation.  When it comes as a response to someone else's accent, it's more automatic.  But when I initiate the code switch myself, there's clearly been some sort of assessment - that my client's sister will be more receptive to a gentle southern accent, say, or that the librarian at the Alabama archives might just be suspicious of Yankees.

I find my code switching is more pronounced on the phone, perhaps because all of our vocal manners are.  My fellow interns poke fun at the way I pull out my accent, and they make me feel as though there's something suspicious and inauthentic about my code switching.  As though I were trading on my southern heritage, which, of course, I am.  Unaccented English sticks out in Montgomery; it labels you as a foreigner and possibly a Yank, and it's nice to be able to change registers and blend in.  Just as it's nice not have to ask what hush puppies are or who Jefferson Davis is.

Still, it bothers me that I can't determine what I'm entitled to call mine.  That sugary accent that somehow I inherited but never fully possessed - is that mine?  And the cultural trappings I know so well, but never participated in?  Do we still get to own the things we disavow?


Joyce Cheng said...

Laura, I liked your comments about accents very much, although I do not think that you need to worry at all about "inauthenticity." For me, your "affectation" of the southern accent is a form of empathy.

As a person who grew up with many languages, I am reminded everyday of the performative aspect of language. My paternal family tends to have a Taiwanese accent in mandarin Chinese, and that accent is coded in my home country: if you have that accent, then you identify with the Taiwanese, you sympathize with their persecution under the KMT, and you (possibly) have sympathies for the Japanese. If you have a perfect Beijing accent in mandarin, it suggests that you are pro-China. My mother's family goes to a different level when they start speaking Dutch: it implicitly says, "We are superior to the Indonesians."

I believe that we take on the accent and speak the language of the people whose heart we want to win, whom we want to be close to. I speak "Euro-English" when I am with my Spanish cousins as automatically as I have taken on a few English expressions and tones during my past two years in Paris (because I liked Father Matthew at the Anglican church and my English friend Alan and his family). But as soon as I hit the ground in the US and pick up the phone with Gale, I am back to North American English, because I love my American friends too.

Anyway, I don't think it's any less authentic to fall into a southern accent than to be charming when speaking French, serious when speaking German, and very loud when speaking Spanish.

Laura said...

Affectation as empathy, I like that. Thanks, Joyce. And it's fascinating to hear about the meanings of all the accents your family can adopt. I love language.

gale said...

Okay - so one more piece to add from my trip today - when Carolyn, my white American-Jamaican citizen driver would speak in Patois to the people as we asked directions (or sometimes, they got into the van and came along with us to show us the way), they wouldn't understand; then she asked them in standard English, and they'd get it, and they would respond in standard English.

"Here Rock River, yah?" or "Where be Rock River?"

The person looks confused.

"Is this Rock River?"

"Oh, no - you have to go straight and turn right."

I'm not sure what was going on there. The unexpectedness of her words and intonation? Or they just felt uncomfortable talking to a white lady in that way.