A Neutral Accent

As you read over these words silently what does your voice sound like? Can you really “hear” yourself reading? Does reading aloud sound like this voice in your head, or is it the other way around? Consider this voice your home front.

I am writing in English so we both speak the same language, but you can’t hear my voice. Can my voice disclose information that you cannot register when reading silently?

On my first day of Spanish class in Houston one of my best friends introduced himself by saying I had a weird accent. My brand of Spanish is the historical product of the massive influx in Italian immigrants into the Spanish-colonized country of Argentina. Simply speaking, its Spanish that sounds Italian. English is my second language, but I don’t speak English with an Argentine accent or with what you may anticipate as Hispanic. Instead, people often think I am British or some old-world variant thereof. So why the confusion?

It seems like everyday I go through the motion of explaining that I learned English from an early age with no prescribed accent, that in Argentine schools you learn “Queen’s English”, and that even when I came to Houston I attended an “international school” where my friends were from all over the place. People are seldom satisfied.

My grandmother was born in New York and after living in Argentina for sixty years, she still has an Anglicized way of speaking Spanish. My mum grew up speaking with a British-educated, Hungarian father and an American expat mother. The schools in our neighborhood were St. Andrews Scots School (British), Northlands School for Girls (British), Colegio Dardo Rocha (Italian), Colegio Tarbut (Jewish), and Lincoln (American). My dad’s side of the family is part of the wave of Italian immigrants, but he went to an English boarding school outside of Buenos Aires for safety in a time where my grandfather was receiving death threats from “terrorists”.

Language is the home front. It is the delimitation of what I have cognitive access to, of what can be made familiar. The spoken word is just one form of language, the written word is another, but what about non-verbal language? The engineers and physicists who work together at the Large Hadron Collider in CERN often do not have the same spoken language, but together interact with the physical fabric of the universe. Music notes mean something different to a deaf Beethoven than to the little girl listening to Miley Cyrus on the radio. There are even tabooed and censored languages such the act of sex or fighting.

The everyday thinking voice is quite different than these modes of communication. It is the reflective voice of your everyday situation and has been formulating itself since you first learned how to speak. I’m sure you have heard that children learn languages with more ease than adults. Over time our horizons of meaning-constitution ossify, we become lazy and entrenched in how we interpret everyday experiences. In turn we specialize our domain of meaning in ways that reflect the accumulation of our experiences. We speak in a much more specific way now than we could when we were children, but in so doing we lose the innocence of appropriating information without prejudice.

If you ask me where I call home, I usually don’t have a response. Home is where I am now and where I have been. It is plural: the places I’ve been, the people I know, and the languages I speak: they all disclose the world and my life as it is to me right now. You might argue there must be “bad” places I have been where I felt unwelcome and not at home, but I would ask if your home has always been comfortable, welcoming and good? Home is your experience in its totality precisely because it delimits good and bad, comfort and discomfort, love and fear.

In 8th grade we played soccer every recess and the teams were always “international versus French” (my school’s classes were divided into the French program and the international program). I had never taken French and I remember a built-in animosity that often arose between the divided “camps”. In one of our games I remember getting into a fight with one of the French kids who had just arrived. He didn’t speak English or Spanish and I didn’t speak French. Later that year we ended up getting grouped together in a camping trip and we stayed up all night as he taught me “La Marseilles”. To this day it is the only national anthem I really know in its entirety. He has now become one of my closest and oldest friends, whose family has given me a home when visiting Europe. My friend actually never liked that national anthem. He is half Turkish and thinks its imperialist and racist, but the point was that he knew all of it because they made him sing at the beginning of every soccer match he played in France. We communicated not through the meaning of the words but through the experience and care for one another despite not speaking the same language. To this day he is the reason I have good pronunciation in French and why I have always felt so comfortable being immersed in a language while not necessarily understanding it as my own.

When I was young my cousin told me how he thought referring to people from the United States as “Americans” was unfair because us Argentines are also “American”. The explosion of "American" media across the globe has established itself as the standard reference for the model society. A country with a common business language, which allows the banker to buy cigarettes from the gas station clerk. There are common laws that do not allow the clerk to kill the banker and take all of his money. Each has access to various news issues that present the different faces of their inter-related home. Each one uses the other through the motions of their daily routines. The common use of American language is the success of an order that allows us to carry out each of our respective lives in peace.

This situation seems perfectly fine until it comes under duress. The destruction wrought by 9/11 was precisely an attack on the peace of this order. Terrorism taken in a "post 9/11 world" discloses how our habits and symbols are reinforced through language. The semantic content of the term " 9/11 " is grafted onto our broader discourse of terror, fear and security. At the level of individual habits, the once romantic practice of flying has become unnerved. Memories ground themselves like scars in certain parts of our lives, and the mediation of language constantly reminds us of what happened on that fateful day. The news of the Madrid subway bombing for example extends one experience of terror to the broader ramework of transportation. This in turn causes inexpressible feelings of paranoia in places that were once commonly safe.

Fearful language debunks the dream of peace and brings out a beastly fear from within our very selves. The defamed act of terror that occurred "to us, in our home" is a memory that reproduces in our discourse like a virus. Our reactions cause an autoimmune response where we reinforce fear through repeated experiences of uncertainty. We become trapped our fears and fight impossible wars over the mere possibility of insecurity, and in turn the language of peaceful routine deconstructs itself.

I try to have a neutral accent; I don’t pledge allegiance to one flag because I am neither here nor there. The concept of home as private property is problematic to me because of the need to keep people out. The increasing fear of privacy only makes us build higher walls to keep “the others” out, but at a certain point we imprison ourselves. We become ossified in our beliefs and the language we adapt is one of fear and exclusion. What is foreign is circumspect and discomforting.

The problem seems to lie our seemingly inevitable ossification where interpret in one language, or by only hearing our own voice. Reading others’ stories, ideas and languages often inflates our convictions and self-certainty, but instead of treating information as something to be gained, as a capital, we should see that information conditions and situates us. Self-reflective critique should always precede assertions  of facts and ethical deliberations. So I have a weird accent and am effectively a nomad, but I try not fear that I don't understand what's going.