The most difficult question you can ask me is where I come from. I was born in Cape Town. By blood I am a mostly Belgian, with a bit of English and Irish thrown in. I went to school in Switzerland and then the United Kingdom. I hold both British and South African passports. And I now call Cape Town home again. Maybe you can help me decide where I am from?
When people ask me where I am from, I tell them: here, Cape Town. And they don’t believe me. They don’t believe me because of how I sound, my accent, illustrating just how key a role accent plays in identity. Especially when yours differs from the majority of those around you.
People here often ask me where I am from, but what they really want to know is where my accent is from. My accent is odd. Officially, it is a British accent, Received Pronunciation to be more precise. So does this officially make me British? When I speak, people hear different things and what they want to hear – I’ve had folk think I’m Kiwi, Aussie, American and even Cockney. And the way I speak changes, too, circumstances and levels of intoxication depending. Since living back in the land of my birth, my vowels have started to flatten out and I use more of the local parlance (although I probably know more Durban slang by now than Cape Town talk, as my boyfriend hails from the East Coast).
Held up against the accents of people who have lived here their whole lives, my voice stands out. 95% (ish) of the first things people comment on when meeting me for the first time is my enunciation. Having gone to school in England, I picked up an English accent. I was used to sounding like everyone else for the twenty years I spent there. For the first time, I live in a place where very few have my accent. By now I am pretty tired of answering the question “where are you from?”. The way I speak has been both positively and negatively received – some laughing at and downright mocking it, others completely reveling in it.
My accent and the contrast to its surroundings have brought up a lot of issues – identity, personal integration and learning how to feel comfortable with who I am. I’ve experienced waves of anger, annoyance and feelings of rejection because of how I feel about the way I speak. When I open my mouth it is a reminder than I am different. I fear judgment, and with it rejection. Because people do judge a person by how they talk.
In England, one would call my accent “posh” – I sound exactly like them from Made In Chelsea, if a shop owner in Kleinmond is to be believed. One might then assume I am rich and snobby because I sound like people who are rich and snobby. One might assume I am a British tourist on holiday in the Cape with her pocket full of pounds, instead of a girl – who, by the way, deplores those awful Sloanes on M.I.C. – who emigrated alone to a country that others would label as shambolic, unstable and corrupt.
I’ve battled and resisted this thing that marks me apart, my accent. But that resistance and battling has lead me closer to a place where I am more accepting of myself as I am. After all, South Africa is a country blended of different cultures and accents. A country that for centuries has seen an influx of voortrekkers – pioneers with foreign accents in search of a new place to call home.