We reveal ourselves through pronunciation. The way we speak is never neutral—our accents tie us to a language, a place, a culture. Accents speak for us, simultaneously denoting where we belong, and where we are foreign. Before I speak, I know that you are already reading my appearance and my body language. Will you listen to what I say, or to how I say it?
When I speak Mandarin, my North-American accent gives me away. In China, my awkward sentence structure identifies me as a tourist. To my older relatives, my mixed-up tones mark me as a Saturday Chinese-school dropout. “Do you speak Chinese?” is an unavoidable question that puts me on trial for laziness and lack of filial responsibility. It’s a shame that you don’t know your mother tongue. Why don’t you speak to your grandparents in Chinese? My accented Mandarin becomes a source of guilt. When I speak Mandarin, I feel the need to apologize and to make excuses: “but we speak English at home, but I have never lived in China, but…” I prefer not to speak at all, which sustains a vicious cycle. My embarrassing Mandarin accent is worsened by my embarrassment about it. My fear of being singled out by the mistakes in my pronunciation makes it challenging for me to learn more about my Chinese heritage—which is one of the most fundamental and inescapable aspects of my identity.
In contrast, I feel comfortable speaking French with the accent of a non-native speaker. I am much less emotional about my French accent because I have an academic relationship with the language, whereas Mandarin involves cultural ties that cannot be unlearned. I am supposed to know Mandarin, but I am not expected to know French. Therefore, I am allowed to make mistakes. It helps that French speakers rarely comment on—let alone, criticize—my accent. However, by being comfortable with my anglophone French accent, I also accept that I will always be on the outside of French culture, looking in. I may be able to talk about politics in French, read Sartre and Molière, and sing along to Les Choristes, but my accent reminds me that I will be a francophile at most, and never a francophone; able to appreciate, but unable to embody.
My “lack of” an accent when I speak English enables me to find a sense of belonging in Canada. This speaks to the inclusiveness of our society, because it allows belonging to be picked up, to be acquired. However, I think that it is problematic to simply accept Canada’s reputation as a cultural mosaic that manages to find a place for every piece. There is a notion that it is desirable for people to lose their native accent and to adopt the Canadian one (but what exactly is a Canadian accent if it is not the caricature of “eh,” “aboot,” and “sore-ee”?). My mother tells me that she is relieved that I do not have an accent, because she has encountered microaggressions from neighbours, other parents, and salespeople who find it difficult to understand her (or find it to be too much effort to try), and do not value her voice, in both senses of the word. The funny thing is that people assume that her accent indicates a lack of familiarity with English, but she is a native speaker who has lived in the Commonwealth for most of her life, and simply speaks with an accent that is difficult to place, and is, thus, automatically and indiscriminately othered. On the other hand, a British accent is an asset, connoting refinement and attractiveness—and there is no pressure to underplay it to get closer to the so-called Canadian norm. Linguistic bias is perhaps an unconscious indication of socio-political prejudices. Why are some accents more equal than others?
When I first moved to Canada, I was Yuanxin. My Chinese name caused me grief for two reasons; I was always at the end of the alphabet (which to my competitive grade-school self, meant finishing in last place), and nobody could pronounce it, let alone spell it. Ys and Xs are scary letters in the English alphabet—so rarely employed at the beginning of words that they are more useful for communicating mathematical unknowns. My name became something ungainly like “You-Ain’t-Sing,” a perversion of its poetic significance. “Yuan” means source, or origin, and “xin” conveys appreciation and enjoyment. Sometimes, I even mispronounced my name for consistency, and ended up getting confused about its actual pronunciation.
When I changed schools, I took the opportunity to change my name. I chose Kathleen, an extremely anglicised name that, as a bonus, put me in the first half of the alphabet. However, I moved to a French school, so my French teachers called me “Catherine” or “Kate-lean” because my name did not fit into the French model of pronunciation. But I was all right with that, because there was less at stake with my adopted, English name.
In a way, I have always been in between cultures, existing in the middle ground between the name I was given, and the name I picked out of a book in the checkout line at the grocery store.
I grew up in French. I read Les Schtroumpfs, drew “triangles rectangles” and carried a “trousse” equipped with “compas” and “equerre.” I may not always have been aware of it, but I lived in a melting pot of accents from around the Francophonie. My school was a popular choice for the children of French Canadians, as well as expats from France. The majority of students, however, spoke French as a second language, like me with my Anglo and Chinese names. My school was a microcosm. On the whole, the culture was one of acceptance of difference, but I still noticed a hierarchy of accents. Making fun of the Québécois accent was a running joke (but the Québécois students also made fun of the French students’ accents). There was a universal agreement that books sounded the best when the French students read aloud.
Where did this gold standard come from? Why is French from France widely considered to be the most beautiful iteration of French, even by non-French speakers? Though the French empire has fallen, do our linguistic preferences still reveal remnants of power concentrated in the metropole? Quebec has been politically separate from France since 1763, yet the Québécois accent is constantly compared to French-French—at best, as being “different” or “cute,” and at worst, as sounding “strange” or “comical.” Most of the time this comparison is done in jest, but it does reflect entrenched prejudice. The repetition of such comments can be hurtful for Québécois francophones because the othering is based on an innate, unforgettable, and inseparable part of their identity—ties that go much deeper than my non-native French accent, which is only a part of my experiential identity.
In contrast to English, France has a clear hegemony over the so-called “Standard” or “International” French, because the Académie Française, the official authority on grammar and vocabulary, is based in France. On the other hand, American English or Canadian English is not any less legitimate than British English. English does not have a single dominant idea of correctness. Perhaps this is because of English’s identity as a lingua franca—a method of communication between people who do not speak the same language. English is a language that can be appropriated by people from different backgrounds, and the emphasis is on its usage. On the other hand, the mission of the Académie Française is more focused on preserving the prestige of the French language, to “create linguistic rules we can be certain of, to make it pure, eloquent, and capable of treating the arts and sciences.” It has been concerned with keeping out “anglicismes”–words borrowed from English—in favour of French neologisms, unsuccessfully attempting to replace the word “hashtag” with “mot-dièse,” using the French term for a musical sharp. The Académie also claimed that femininized versions of certain words, such as “auteure” (author) and “ingénieure” (engineer), are grammatically incorrect because they do not sound proper. According to this institution, these nouns should only exist in their masculine form, which seems like a rather conservative decision. The Académie practices prescriptive linguistics, telling people how they should talk, and does not believe that the correctness of a language has anything to do with the way people actually speak. In effect, “auteure” and “ingenieure” are commonly used in Quebec.
Historically, Quebec has always been a linguistic other, existing under English power with a legitimate fear of losing its French heritage and language, a fear that persists today in the form of language laws and policing. After its separation from France, Quebec became obsessed with preserving a correct French, according to the standard determined by the French elite, in an effort to maintain and legitimize its ties to France. However, speech in France and Quebec evolved differently, and Québécois French still feels the pressure to prove itself as a “proper” way of speaking. It is criticized for its anglicismes, for attaching an extra “tu” to the end of questions and for skipping over the “ne” part of a negation, entre autres. These criticisms view Québécois French as grammatically incorrect, but does the linguistic norm attempt to correct grammar, or to correct a way of thinking? Does it correct pronunciation, or a way of expressing oneself?
Québécois francophones are caught in a cycle of insecurity about their French. Travis Bickle, a journalist for La Presse, characterized French in Quebec as a “regional” language, with “elementary syntax, minimal grammar, vocabulary and spelling”. Radio-Canada also favours a more “neutral” version of the Quebec accent that sounds closer to Parisian French, thus perpetuating a standard of linguistic elitism. Having a normative version of a language marginalizes those who do not fit into it, and the linguistic division often widens and emphasizes social ones. An accent which differs from the “professional” accent presented by the media becomes associated with a lack of education, and thus a lack of credibility. In effect, a thick accent becomes comical, because it is a marked deviation from the mediatized norm. The criticism of the Québécois accent also comes from within the community, and is internalized, resulting in the self-correction of Québécois idioms which are perceived to be incorrect, and in self-censorship through the choice to speak Franglais or English instead.
Language carries historical baggage. Although times have changed, French from France is still associated with the Paris of the 1800s, a cultural capital for artists and intellectuals. French from Quebec does not carry the same connotation, but the basic function of language is not to sound beautiful or pure—it is to communicate. The more familiar character of the Quebec accent allows for a greater degree of rapprochement, especially between fellow Québécois. In addition, Québécismes are expressions that were invented to describe the North-American reality in ways Parisian French could not. It is unfortunate that differences in accent are perceived as diminishing the purity of the language, instead of enriching it.
Reclaiming the Language
Why does language matter? It influences how we present ourselves to the world and how we understand and grasp reality. Being insecure about language is a major hindrance to communication, and to the navigation of our own reality. We may have achieved political decolonisation (to a certain extent), but many still communicate using the language of the coloniser. Nevertheless, just as individuals have pushed back against a political authority, we are also capable of pushing back against a linguistic authority.
Take Usito, a dictionary that seeks to “fill the gaps” created by the dominance of dictionaries produced by French publishers which codify a Eurocentric view of the language and, thus, emphasize a Eurocentric worldview. Usito privileges descriptive linguistics, recording and recognizing expressions that are used in Quebec and North America, including anglicismes and the feminization of occupations.
Québécois French is just one variant of French found in the Francophonie. Taking ownership of a region’s unique brand of French, and taking pride in the peculiarities of the accent is empowering. Many Québécois recognize the historical devaluation of their French, and in reaction, continue speaking their French with pride. Politicians, such as Gilles Duceppe, the leader of Bloc Québécois, use Québécois slang and the more informal register as a rallying cry, speaking on more familiar terms with voters to spread a populist message. There is a sense of pride, and a sense of critical distance, of being francophone, but not French.
A Balancing Act
Accents represent the push and pull between the desire to fit in, and the desire to embrace exactly what makes us different. In many respects, I am not foreign in Canada, I speak English with the normalized accent and I have an English name. But certain aspects of me will always be foreign. I was not born here. The name I was given is a Chinese name. I want to be Chinese; I want to speak Chinese without an accent. I don’t want to be other in either context.
If I work on my Chinese pronunciation, I can belong to both groups through the avenues of two different languages. I am lucky—others must choose between an English that is inflected with foreignness and standardized English, between preserving cultural ties and erasing personal history in the name of integration.
I still feel insecure about my Chinese accent, but my North-American accent is just a variation on a theme, alongside the multitude of accents in China. Although my less-than-perfect Chinese is frowned upon, I can choose to reclaim my version of the language and to embrace my idiolect. My incorrect pronunciation implicitly tells my story—my second language is French, not Mandarin, which is a choice that others may criticize, but a part of my personal history nonetheless.
Let us change our attitude towards accents. An accent should not be a marker of difference, but the opening of a story. If we start to listen to what people have to say, instead of how they say it, I believe that we can communicate more truthfully—both with others, and within ourselves.