Well, it’s finally happened: only a week at my grandparent’s house and I’ve finally adopted a weird mish-mash of acadian and ontarian and whatever else I speak like accents, so that I’m pretty sure no one actually understands me when I talk. Soon I’ll call my parents, and my father will complain about them ruining my language, and my visit will end and my accent will completely disappear again. This always happens.
My accent has always been a weird part of my identity. It’s not super obvious or anything, and you’d be forgiven for not realizing it, but it’s always marked me as slightly “other” wherever I go, because it isn’t really anything. Ontarians think I’m from Quebec, Quebecers think I’m anglophone, anglophones always think I’m from out of town. I don’t have the same regional accents my parents do because I never lived where they grew up; heck, I don’t even have the regional accent of where I grew up because I immitated my parents too much for it to really stick. So my accent is a bit of a No-Man’s-Land: it’s not quite Ontarian, it’s not too french, it changes based on who I’m talking to because it’s never really been anything but a compromise.
But here’s where it really hurts me: when I come here, and speak to my grandparents and visit my family and learn my heritage, and no one can understand me properly. Not because of a language barrier, but because of an accent barrier. When people assume I’m not Acadian because I don’t have the accent. When they do a double take when I’m introduced as my mother’s daughter, because they’ve heard me speak and you can see it in their eyes : “Another one gone and swallowed up by the Quebecers. What a shame.”
So when I was twelve years old, I sat down in my room and practiced speaking the way my grandparents did. I made my vowels tenser, more nasal, stretched them out in odd places. I would say “aura” instead of “close to”, “haller” instead of “pull”, practiced conjugating my verbs in the conditional when I meant it in the present. I never spoke that way in public, because to my ears it sounded more like a parody than an honest attempt to fit in. Even now, when I slip and immitate my aunt’s intonation, I flinch and hope no one thinks I’m mocking them, because this still feels like a costume more than a part of me.
I want that in fiction. I want characters with changing accents, characters who don’t sound like what they should and are dismissed, characters who try to immitate other accents and fail, characters who stand out everywhere because their way of speaking is never quite right. I want multilingual characters who never sound like they have a first language because their speech is a melting pot of intonations and accents and stretched vowels that don’t really fit together but is always distinctly them; I want multilingual characters who wake up in the morning and spend a few seconds trying to remember what language they’re supposed to speak today; I want multilingual characters who sit in a corner muttering to themselves because what is the word in this language I know it I know it why is it only this one language I can’t remember today. I want multilingual characters who sound native in their second language, multilingual characters who lost their mother tongue due to immigration or social pressures, and I want characters who feel it, in their bones and their blood and the way their tongue moves over their teeth when they speak, who can taste the absence where that velar consonnant should be. Accents and multilingualism change you, they reveal you, and they have real effects on your day to day life. They’re not just ways to point out a character’s ethnic origin, or to helpfully translate a hidden message. They can be funny, or tragic, or just plain exist, but they are not just plot devices. Languages and the way we speak them shape our world every day, and I want that to be explored more.