*This article was published in the Huffington Post on the 27/07/2017 and it still deeply resonates with me.
I could have three languages dwelling in my mouth and still the world will tell me that the most important of them is English.
The Genesis of my knowledge of languages was isiXhosa. This was as a result of my close relationship with Evelina, our Housekeeper. I attended an English school and discovered that I needed to swop “Molo Mama” for “Good morning Ma’am”, that I could no longer say “Unjani, uMama namhlanje?” because I could not enquire how my teachers were. In IsiXhosa, it is appropriate to enquire about people’s well-being, as an indication that you care but my teachers were adamant that it ‘crossed the line’. Ndiye ndathula, ndahlala egumbini lokufundela ndafundiswa isiNgesi (I kept quiet, sat in class and learnt English). This is when isiXhosa no longer found my mouth to be its Home but that it was now a visitor that I could open the door for only when I was at home with Evelina.
I realised that there were different ‘Englishes’. The different ‘Englishes’ not only encompassed the academic English or conversational English but it required my accent to change. At school, I spoke English in a White accent because most of my teachers were White. I attempted speaking in that same accent in my Coloured community, Schornville, and their response was, “Jy dink jy’s beter omdat jy by KHS skool loop neh?” (You think you’re better because you’re at KHS, right?”
This is why I wrote the poem, I’m too Warm, so that people can understand how difficult it is to navigate around my accent.
I’m too warm
Round your words off perfectly
Ensure that you r’s are silenced
Your k’s should not be too harsh
You see, “If I spoke the way people of my skin colour spoke, I would fall victim to this stereotype that has been established for my people” (In Coloured accent)
My tongue rolls incessantly throughout the day
And I’ve been told that I sound educated
I was once commended for the way I articulated myself in a debate
The White man said, “Your command for the English language is great, especially how you were able to articulate yourself.”
Oh why, of course, it is unusual for Coloured people to express themselves in the same language of our colonisers
And we applauded them with our silence and inability to stand up for what we believe in
Sitting in silence, teeth marks on our tongues, brittle teeth
You see, I am not upset that this poem is in English
I am upset that my Coloured accent is immediately associated with an uneducated human being
Yet my English is overactive
My knowledge of the English language will command your respect; will consume you whole, irrespective of what accent I choose to express myself in
My English has allowed me to sound White
Because White is equivalent to being educated, right?
I don’t speak the way I do as an attempt to sound White
I speak the way I do because that’s the way I was raised
My accent does not mean I’m better
It just means that I was lucky enough to attend the school I did
That I was even afforded the opportunity to afford attending an institution of Higher Learning
My accent simply means that my tongue rolls slightly more than yours
That my mouth is always more rounded
And often my jaws are not clenched
It means that I need to switch my accents in between people so that they can have a certain image of me
How dare I speak in an English accent to my Coloured community?
The audacity to do that, to disrespect them, to be a constant reminder of what was never in their reach…
How dare I remind them of their circumstances!
So I change my accent around them
I change it around other races to appear as though I’m on their level.
But it’s time
It’s time for me to unclench my fist
And free myself from this box I have been put in
The way I have been boxed in
This box is becoming too small for me
It’s been warm in here for too long
Schornville is ‘n Kleurling gemeenskap, my familielede is Kleurling, natuurlik praat ons Afrikaans. (Schornville is a Coloured community, all my family members are Coloured, of course we speak Afrikaans.) Sometimes I can sense my family’s hesitation to speak to me in Afrikaans because they think I can’t understand it.
I constantly have to reassure them that I understand it and suddenly the mood changes because they become comfortable. Speaking Afrikaans makes them comfortable.
At times it feels like I am denouncing my mother tongue. My academic work requires me to write, read and speak in English with the occasional gap to speak or write in my mother tongue. My oldest cousin, Antonio Stride, is passionate about Afrikaans and ensured that we visited the Afrikaans Taal Monument. This experience allowed me to realise how rich the language is in history and how I would always carry it with me, despite the spaces I occupy. It was reassuring to realise that I had not lost my Afrikaans because it had made itself comfortable in the spare bedroom.
I embrace that I am multilingual.
It would be an injustice to neglect Afrikaans and IsiXhosa because the space I am in requires me to speak English. These three languages contribute to my identity. They allow me to communicate with people from different backgrounds and to understand and appreciate the importance and rich histories of languages.
The onus is mine to ensure that these languages continue to dwell in my mouth from its Genesis to its Revelation and to ensure that my mouth remains their Home.