–August 28, 2011–Gboyega Otolorin–Lagos–
As a person, I have always despised faking. Airs, affectations, pretending to what you’re not, trying to impress people. It irritates me. I’m a firm believer in being you. Be yourself. If people like it, fine. If they don’t, well, who cares? Why try to please capricious humans anyway? People don’t really know what they want, that’s the truth. That’s why they can love you today and hate you tomorrow. Or vice versa.
Now, I’m not making a case for bad behaviour. I’m not saying go out and be nasty and be horrible to people and then, when you’re called out, you say ‘But that’s who I am. I can’t change the way I behave just to please you.’ No. That’s not the kind of thing I’m talking about. Common courtesy and manners are essential. Considering and respecting the feelings of others before taking action is a virtue we all must cultivate. No, the kind of thing I’m talking about is acting. Acting superior. When you start performing for people. When you start behaving in a certain way, trying to project some kind of elevated status. When you start trying to ‘oppress’. That’s what I’m talking about.
Ok. What is the point of this piece? It’s simple. I want to talk about something that typifies the kind of behaviour mentioned above, something that is rampant now in Nigeria, especially in Lagos: Fake Accents.
We’ve all heard foreign accents. American accents, British accents, orisirisi accents; everybody on the Island has one these days. Just enter an office on Ajose Adeogun and you hear things like ‘Ohmigod! Tope, is that yeou? I haven’t seen you in ay-jes! How you doing?’ And Tope replies, ‘Oh, I’m foine. Hawee yeou?’
In Lagos of 2011, foreign accents are everywhere. You can’t escape them. We hear them on TV, on the radio, at school, at work, at church, at parties, at the cinemas, at fast-food joints, on the street, in buses, everywhere. Accents are ubiquitous these days. They have almost become de rigueur, a must-have social requirement for living and working in Lagos. With the rise of these foreign accents, an accompanying belief has emerged. The belief that until you speak your English with some kind of British or American accent, you have not sufficiently demonstrated your sophistication or shown yourself worthy to be regarded as a member of the ‘elite’ or ‘upper class’. Fake accents have proliferated.
But it wasn’t always like this. I grew up in Lagos, and during my Primary school days in the 90s, people didn’t go around saying things like ‘Hawee yeou?’ Oh, yes there were many people with foreign accents even then but you could tell that the accents were real genuine ones, not manufactured. As I remember, some of my schoolmates had foreign accents back then, but such children usually just came back to Nigeria with their parents after years of living abroad. Some of them were even born abroad, but the funny thing is, after spending – at the most – two full terms with us, they would have lost their accents and they would be speaking exactly the way we, born and bred Naija kids, were speaking.
However, these days, you see fully grown, fully developed twenty-something Lagos adults, who were born, bred and ‘buttered’ in Lagos, go to the UK for one year to pursue a Masters and then they come back with a total British accent that doesn’t disappear for up to five years after they completed the degree. Or you see people who went abroad for a two-month vacation and they come back to Lagos with foreign accents. And then you hear some people, people who can’t even tell the difference between London and the entire United Kingdom, and everything they say ends with ‘innit?’ even though you can’t tell whether their accents are British or American or even Jamaican. I mean, who is fooling who?
So I believe the question is how did we get here? When did having an accent become a status symbol? Why has everybody in Lagos suddenly gone foreign accent-crazy? What led to this?
There are several things I as a person could point to as factors responsible for this foreign-accent-mania. One of them is satellite TV. Almost everyone watches DSTV or some other form of cable pay-TV nowadays as opposed to the 90s, those days of the really huge satellite dishes, when DSTV/MultiChoice was the major cable provider and it was only for the rich. Cable TV, with its music and movie and lifestyle channels, informs our ideas of what’s cool, of what’s hot and what’s not. And cable TV is chock-full of foreign shows and foreign accents.
And then, together with cable TV, there’s the increased availability of pirated American movies on DVDs. Pirated movies are everywhere now as opposed to the 90s when movies were on video tapes. Many of our trends and foreign speech patterns are from Hollywood movies. So it’s like the accents people don’t learn from cable, they learn from long hours immersed in DVDs of foreign movie ‘collections’ and ‘season films’.
The Internet also helped the foreign accent trend along. The Internet made sure young Nigerians kept up with the emerging expressions and slang, so much so that foreign coinages like ‘omg’ and ‘baby-mama’ are now used in everyday conversation.
Still, not everyone gets their accents from media. Some people actually grew up abroad or lived there for a while and a distinction must be made between them and those whose accents were developed from what they heard on TV or in movies. There are real, original foreign accents and there are fake, counterfeit ones. The problem is that these days, it’s getting harder to tell the difference.
In the end though, the main factor responsible for the large number of accents today, whether real or fake, is that sad, peculiarly Nigerian desire to ‘oppress’. We always want to oppress. In any Nigerian gathering, there are always people who want to demonstrate their superiority. People who want to show you that they’re better than you, they have more money than you, they have a bigger car, they live in a bigger house, they have a more lucrative job, they have smarter kids, they have prettier daughters, they are more sophisticated, they live in a posher area, they attend a posher church, their children attend posher schools, they are connected to more powerful people, they are more exposed, they’ve visited more countries, they are more important, they eat better food; in short their entire lives are superior to your own and the only thing that is required of you is to bow, and accept that you don’t measure up to them. This is the reason why our country is the way it is, why our leaders act the way they do. Oppression is part of the general Nigerian culture. It has nothing to do with tribe or region or religion. It is what we do. It is who we are.
Possession of an accent is a part of this oppression. Everyone wants to speak with an accent because they think it tells the people listening, ‘Hey, I’m with it. I’m cool. I’m exposed. I’m sophisticated. I’ve been abroad’ as if having been abroad automatically makes you wise or knowledgeable or worth listening to.
It is for this reason, to demonstrate superiority, that we hear accents everywhere today. In almost every TV advert nowadays, we hear all kinds of strange accents. Is it in the Etisalat Easy-Starter advert where the guy pronounces kobo as ‘kow-bow’? Or the Easy-Cliq one where the guy in the green T-shirt and black waistcoat keeps saying “Is it ‘be-kiz’ we…” instead of ‘because’. Or the Sunlight washing powder advert where the women are singing “Happy times are ‘he’” instead of ‘here’ – a style which incidentally has been adopted by many church choirs. Or the Cool FM radio presenter who some years ago, when trying to teach Dan Foster, her co-host, the proper pronunciation of the Yoruba ‘pele’ kept saying “It’s not ‘bele’, it’s ‘kpelay’”. What is that???
But I suppose I shouldn’t bring radio show hosts into this discussion. Lagos radio is inseparable from foreign accents. I think it’s virtually impossible to get a job at a Lagos radio station without some kind of foreign accent.
We hear orisirisi accents in church. Apparently, God is no longer pronounced as ‘God’ but as ‘Gad’ and Jesus is now ‘Jeezis’. We hear orisirisi accents in Nollywood movies. In a movie advert I saw a while ago, a popular Nollywood actress said this line: “Ohmigod! How did you git my sistiz pikchis?” Imagine that. We hear orisirisi accents on regular Nigerian TV. From newscasters to talk show hosts to entertainment show anchors to music artistes, everyone has an accent. We hear things like “now if we criticly analoize the current guvmint polisay” and “Yeah, ah star-ed wrai-ing songs and rhyming when ah wuz like 13 or so cuz y’know ah always knew music wuz what ah wuz gon’ do”. All of it just makes you wonder. Why? Must you have an accent to be taken seriously? As a music artiste, do you have to be a fake Americana before you have credibility?
An erroneous belief I have discovered that many people and even certain schools hold is that to speak English properly, you must have a British/English accent. This is completely false! All over the world, in places where English is spoken but not as the mother tongue, people speak English with natural accents derived from their first language. Even in the UK itself, Scottish people speak English with a thick Scottish accent as do the Welsh and the Irish. When French people speak English, you know that they are French. It is the same with the Italians, the Spanish, the Germans, the Dutch, the Chinese, everyone. So how can we, Nigerians, with our multitude of local languages and mother tongues, believe that our English must be spoken with a proper upper-class English accent to be correct?
I personally believe it is a throwback to colonialism and that persisting mindset that the white man’s way is always better. We should be proud of our African accents! The way to speak correct English is not to kill yourself trying to acquire a foreign accent. It is to make sure that your sentences are grammatically correct and that all your words are pronounced properly. And you do not have to possess a British or American accent to pronounce English words properly.
Let us tell ourselves the truth. Accents in Nigeria, whether real or fake, are prized because people want to show off. They want to prove a point. They want to let you know that they’re not from around here. They’ve been abroad. And everyone knows everything about the white man’s country is automatically better than anything we have here. Abi, no be so?
Now, I’m not saying everybody who speaks with an accent is trying to show off but the truth is many of them are. And the idea that people think an accent makes you somehow superior is just ridiculous to me! If anything, an acquired accent (especially a fake one) is a sign of an inferiority complex to the white people whose accent you’re copying. It’s like saying, “Oh, I don’t believe the way I speak is good enough and so let me change it to the way these people speak which is better.” To acquire an accent or not to, for an adult, is a choice. Why do we, Nigerians who grew up here, go abroad to the UK or America, and immediately force ourselves to cultivate their accent? How many adult Britons or Americans do we see who go somewhere and then they change their accent and start speaking their English with the local accent? It all boils down to being proud of who you are.
A very good example of sticking to your natural accent is Gerard Butler, the Hollywood actor who played King Leonidas in the classic movie ‘300’. He is Scottish and though he’s acted in so many Hollywood movies and can deliver an American or English accent at the drop of a hat, when he gives interviews, he still speaks English with his Scottish brogue. No faking. No Americana. Same thing for Russell Crowe. He’s been in Hollywood even longer than Gerard Butler but his Australian accent is still intact.
And then there’s Matthew Rhys, who plays Kevin Walker in the ABC series ‘Brothers and Sisters’. Matthew Rhys is from Wales, but watching him on the show, you would never be able to tell that he’s not American. His accent is that good. Still, when they interview him in real life, sometimes it’s hard to even understand what he’s saying because of his thick Welsh accent. After years of living and working in America, how come Matthew Rhys has held on to his Welsh accent? How come he and Russell Crowe and Gerard Butler haven’t started speaking Americana? It’s because they are proud of who they are and where they are coming from.
A Nigerian like us, Madam Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, our current Minister of Finance, has worked at the World Bank in America for years. But when she talks, we don’t hear Americana flowing from her mouth. I thank God for Nigerians like her. Those are the people who know who they are and what they stand for. I wrote this little rant because enough is enough. I’m tired of hearing all these foreign accents. I’m tired of these fakers and pretenders and posers. Please, reclaim your own Nigerian identity. And revel in it.
I made a vow to myself recently: Till the day I die no matter where I’m living, except I’m involved in some kind of performance which requires a different accent, I will never EVER speak English with any accent apart from my natural Nigerian one.
It is a vow I’m very proud of. It is a vow I believe every Nigerian, born and bred here, should also make.