Accents can be unconscious and personal. The dynamics that determine how we speak a language are as complex as our unique voices. But accents can also be pretty public – and political. Communities share characteristics of speech, and accents are markers of belonging. Generally, if you are Nigerian, you speak like a Nigerian. If you are Liberian you speak like a Liberian… generally. Until the personal dynamics come into play: the blend of the many, geographically distinct, Nigerian accents, the accent of the Briton raised in Lagos… or the Nigerian schooled in Egypt… We can always expect a blending of accents as the child picks up influences from home, and combines it from influences from school to get his own voice which would usually deviate somewhat from the norm. All this is well and good.
I once fell into conversation with a young Pakistani in Oxford. A likable young man, it soon emerged that he had only spent a week in England. ‘Where have you just come from?’ I asked, ‘The United States?’
‘Oh no. this is my very first trip outside Pakistan.’
‘But your accent…’ I began,
‘I know,’ he grinned. ‘I love American films.’
And that was a total answer. It made sense of course, for it wasn’t just the accent that was American. It was the entire package. He might as well have strolled out of a box pack of Gray’s Anatomy. In that of course he was no faster on the uptake than those who only need a two-week foreign vacation to debut a strong alien accent. On the other hand I once met an English professor at the British Library who had lived twenty-five years in Nigeria. Until he said that, I hadn’t picked up a clue as to his Nigerian residency from his voice. Why do some people retain their native accents throughout their lives despite the daily provocation of foreign domicile, and others lose theirs permanently in the course of a Gatwick stopover? The answer might lie in the perception of power, with people readily adopting the accent of the metropolis. This trend will even be observed regionally within places like the USA when Southern, rural accents collide with the New York accent.
A country would usually have a basket of recognisable national accents, and even within a language group there would be a whole spectrum of twangs from familiar marketplace to aspirational board room. So comedians can have fun code-switching before a microphone, and with every shift in accent the listeners can picture every characteristic native to the speakers of that particular strain of English.
The problem of course is that the accent in many aspirational Nigerian circles – from boardrooms to night clubs – is no longer ‘Nigerian’ in the strict sense. It is not American either, to be fair, or British… nor is it any discernible brand of internationalese so that the best we can own is that it is ‘foreign’ or not ‘typically Nigerian’. It is a mongrelised Nigerian English. Most Nigerians can fluently code-switch from Pidgin English (Naija Langwej) to standard English. Sometimes there’s something to be said that can only be properly flavoured when rendered in Naija. And that’s just great. It would also be great if we could code-switch from our regular accent to this ‘Mongrel English’ that is not native to any country in the world, but this attempt to speak, say, American is rendered on the level, without a wink, in an accent that would have the average American head-scratching.
So although an accent is a terribly personal thing, and a voice is subject to many personal dynamics, a communal inferiority complex is problematic where people are so apologetic about their accents that they are ready to acquire any approximation of the speech patterns of others.
Listening to Nigerian radio is sometimes a trial because of the accent of some presenters. There are many Nigerian ‘normative’ accents for speaking English and any of them should be acceptable for pubic radio. What is jarring, what screams loudly of a psychological crisis in either media recruiting policy or our presenters themselves, is the mongrelised English that passes for Anglo-American. Radio broadcasts come in different languages of course, from English, through indigenous languages to the Naija langwej stations. The indigenous and Naija language stations have no identity crisis and go about their merry business. (If the Naija stations have any problem it is the tendency to treat their listeners as though we all have a collective bullet in the head. There’s no need to describe the Ministry of Health is the ‘ogbonge gofment office wey dey look health matter…’ on each reference – Pigin listeners should be credited with some more sense, but that is clearly the subject for another blog!) Most Nigerian presenters on English stations are comfortable in their own skin and accent. They can also hack a faux accent when they want to, for comic relief, or just for the heck of it, and that is well and good. But there is a persistent fringe that may have gone so far down the route of exterminating their real deal accent that the faux foreign twang, which actually imperils communication here and abroad, is all that is left. Bad grammar often comes in as part of the package, along with the laboured mispronunciation of local names (Ketu becomes Kitu and Owerri become Owayrei…).
Time out: the Nigerian accent is a valid, beautiful variation of the spoken English and should be the gold standard for media broadcast in Nigeria. The energy we put into morphing our accents will be better spent improving our grammar. Those of us who may have, by long residence – or vacations – abroad, lost the virility of our native Nigerian without quite acquiring a viable foreign accent that can actually be understood by the foreigners we are trying to mimic should attract public sympathy from foreigners and our compatriots alike, not the opportunity to further mongrelise our national accents with the visibility of daily broadcast.