17 January 2006

The daily digest: Thoughts on Elitism, English, and the Welfare State.

A recent argument flared up between me and a friend of mine while we were having dinner the other day. She said that I'm too much of an elitist. This was brought up by the fact that I correct people's English. Often. Very often. Which, I must admit, is damn annoying.

But that's exactly why I don't do this with everyone, only specific people. Case in point: Three of my friends, including the one who accused me of elitism. But why them, you ask, faithful reader? Well, my aforementioned friend is an English/Italian major, so is another person who was present and frequently corrected (the latter works as a translator). I'll get to the third person in a minute.

So, these two are supposed to speak good English. In fact, one of them has a job that depends on it. And both of them often ask me to edit their writing, I'd guess on average five times a week. Why, then, is it so surprising that I should correct their English outside of a professional context? What's the difference between the English that's part of their degree/profession, and the English they speak (Slang and colloquialisms notwithstanding)? Would they be happy to go on making mistakes when they should, and can, know better?

The third individual makes some pronuciation mistakes. But he spent four years in England, studying first for a BA, then his MA. Yet he makes mistakes like pronouncing Onion On-yon (as opposed to un-yen). Ok, so in his case, perhaps I was a bit harsh to correct that...but it brings me on to my next point:

The accusation of elitism developed into an argument about whether or not speaking English with a particular accent is elitist. In essence, she was saying that speaking with an Arabic accent is a good thing, that it's a choice, and shows character. Since we're Arabs, we should we try to speak with an English (British) accent?

Well, that argument is all well and good, but it's not logical; people seldom choose to have the Arabic accent or any other when they speak, it's just how they're taught to speak English. Pronounciation errors is what they are, not some romantic, nationalistic gesture that's meant to evoke the declining Arab identity in a society seemingly overwhelmed by "western" influences.

I, personally, make it a matter of honour to speak English with an English accent. Why? Because I like to show native speakers that even though I'm speaking a second language, I can still do it as well as the best of them.

I guess it goes back to my first days in England; it was a knee-jerk reaction to the way some people I met viewed Arabs (not that the arabs there were doing much to dispel the negaitve imagery); it was disgusting how many viewed all things Arab as backward and inferior. It was from then that I decided to be the best I could be to prove a point.

But who cares what other people think? Well, considering the overall view of arabs around the world these days, a bit of aptitude isn't a bad idea. Still, I do need to chill out a bit, I guess. What does everyone out in Blogland think?


Shahd said...

Different accents are not mistakes; they are idiosyncratic dialects (of a second language), which are related with the aim of using the language, the cultural background, the social group we live with and the linguistic history.

I use English because it is an international language, personally I have no choice but to use it in my work, my studies, with my friends and even with my future husband. It happened to be the language I use the most, despite the fact that it is not my favourite language. I believe that the aim of the language is communication. I speak, people understand me and I understand them we reach to an appropriate level of communication then we achieved the target for which the language was created. Not to forget to mention that 70% of the language is non-verbal.

The accent is developed subconsciously, speaking the way I do is due to where I learned English and how, and it is not by any mean a mistake. We have always to make effort for the others to understand us clearly, but why should we fake an accent similar to their accent?? If it comes subconsciously I will not kick it away to have my own Arabic accent, but if it doesn't the hell with it! I will not fake it! If it is for you a matter of honour, for me I have more important issues to consider as a matter of honour! Getting Palestine back for example is a matter of honour, speaking with an accent has nothing to do with honour!

I don't mind anyone correcting me if I make overt errors related with grammar, structure and even pronunciation (despite the fact that pronunciation is a covert error). In fact while I was studying in Italy, I used to ask people to correct me if I commit any mistakes. But not the way I speak, not my tone and not my accent.

I believe that the world should become a melting pot; nations should communicate, and as English is a common language and is more likely to be the language of communication. Each group has the right to have their idiosyncratic dialect without you insisting on correcting their mistakes!

"In peace there's nothing so becomes a man as modest stillness and humility."
William Shakespeare

Fedaykin said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Fedaykin said...

In peace there's nothing so becomes a man
As modest stillness and humility:
But when the blast of war blows in our ears,
Then imitate the action of the tiger;
Stiffen the sinews, summon up the blood,
Disguise fair nature with hard-favour'd rage;
Then lend the eye a terrible aspect;
Let pry through the portage of the head
Like the brass cannon; let the brow o'erwhelm it
As fearfully as doth a galled rock
O'erhang and jutty his confounded base,
Swill'd with the wild and wasteful ocean.
Shakespeare, Henry V, Act III, scene 1.

Though I don't like to think of this as a militant streak I have, I am nevertheless obliged to do the best I can in terms of speaking English.
Yes, there IS a negative connotation to speaking English with an Arabic accent, but I don't think it's anywhere as profound as a subconscious process. In my opinion, that's just an argument someone made up to excuse people who are too lazy to speak a language properly. I realise it's not up to me to judge what accent is correct and which isn't, but there is a consensus as to what correct and completely incorrect pronunciation is, and I'd like to challenge anyone who speaks with an Arabic accent to pronounce the language according to its proper convention.
So does that make me an elitist? I don't think so...an anal perfectionist perhaps, but not an elitist. There's no shortage of sources to learn an accent (or several), and one need only make a conscious attempt to change one's accent. Not that they have to, but to be honest, I don't want to hear anyone talking about how proud they are of the way they speak when they simply choose to be complacent. Laziness is not a valid choice, just a lack of will to actually do something.

br1 said...

Dear Yousef, it is the 1st time i'm writing you! 1st of all, sorry about my english! ;)
I will not extend my words and my opinion. Yousef i don't understand what do you mean by conventions in terms of accent, i really don't know it, specially because even in england, or in most of the countries in the world have different accents inside their territory, is there the correct one? In terms of Language, Literature and Literacy, it is a fallacy. So go again to england and try to explain people from the north that their accent is not in the "convention", you'll be beaten! If you really want to change the world in terms of english speaking (following "the" convention you speak about) why don't you start by creating classes for english people in all the UK?
I'm joking my dear, but i just want to stress that, and underline Shahd's words, that there is not the accent, there are different ways of saying things, and not everbody has the chance or the will to become other Shaskespear.
take care,

and by the way...

it is not nice on you... using the word anal instead of annal!

and to be an anal perfectionist, it's up to you! (joking)

it was funny your lapsus linguae.


Fedaykin said...

Bruno! We meet at last! Sorry to make the opening sound like a line from a Bond film.
Let's get the ball rolling: You bring up a valid point about accent variance and the lack of a singular holy grail of pronunciation, but I completely disagree about the whole idea being a fallacy; there is a a convention, which is perhaps better called general guidelines about what is acceptable and what is COMPLETELY out. Who sets these standards? They exist, modified as language evolves. But here's where you and I will disagree, I think: I believe that these influences should come from native speakers of a language (heaven knows, there're already a lot of bad influences on spoken Arabic in Jordan, inflicted by native speakers, but that's my opinion).
This is an assumption on my part, coming from a belief in reciprocity: what i don't like being done to my language and my identity, I wouldn't want inflicted on others.
I don't want people to become Shakespeares or Joyces or Wildes, but I also don't want to hear people who have been given the chance to speak a language properly (those who have studied it at universoty level, or lived amongst native speakers for years) making elementary mistakes (and I don't mean only in terms of pronunciation, but also in terms of usage and grammar), then claim that this is their "choice".
On a final note, I did mean to say anal retentive, it's a slang Americanism that's used for people who can't let go of insignificant details, basically inferring that they have a form of mental constipation.
Well, I hope this explains my point a little more. I look forward to speaking to you more about the convetions of the lingua franca.

Anonymous said...


Fedaykin said...

You bloody WHAT? the hell are you on?