A fan recently posted a short clip of her encounter with Meghan Markle on Twitter, and the video has since gone viral. The reason? People debating whether Meghan Markle's voice has changed, whether she has become more British since marrying Prince Harry. 

According to Glamour, Twitter is split, some saying it's clear as day, whereas others say it sounds exactly the same. 

Yet a linguistics expert told Yahoo Lifestyle that after a careful listen to the video, paying special attention to her vowels, he found no change.

"I am not my accent"

The synopsis for the popular SABC3 talk show read - 'I am not my accent. Having an accent is not a measure of intelligence, we unpack why people get discriminated for having accents.'

I agree with the second sentence but not necessarily the first. Let me explain why this is not a contradiction.

I grew up in a white neighbourhood, went to white (private and government) schools, was raised in a country ruled by whites, worked in an industry largely controlled by and that works primarily with whites and am friends with whites. 

It's not a singular story but it's one that's reflected for the purposes of this opinion piece and in my 'you speak such good English' accent, 'you're a coconut/coon' accent, 'you think you're better than us' accent. 

Well, it's the accent that I have and beyond the sting of the words whispered behind my back or spat directly on my face, it's the only one I have. I'm too old now to bend it to make anyone else feel comfortable or spend any more minutes explaining it beyond the paragraph above. This is what I sound like. It is my history - not in its entirety. And it does not give voice to my entire identity.

My accent is me but it doesn't mean there aren't a multitude of other facets that make up 'me'. So you could make certain assumptions about my background, which most people would say has probably benefited my economic status. 

In many instances they are right. Certainly with transactions I make over the phone, but I guess it depends on the crowd because it won't do me any favours faced with those that have strong opinions about what it means to be black.

Am I complaining?

Many would say I have little right to but I'm here to highlight a few points to continue this conversation.

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About that bending of accents, even though I might not agree with someone softening, disguising or changing theirs, I completely understand why people do it. It's about political, social and economic capital. And therein lies the problem.

It's exactly why DA leader, Mmusi Maimane uses his multi accents and I'll challenge you to find anyone who hasn't done it consciously or sub-consciously themselves when trying to engage with different groups of people across strangers, family and friends. 

I spoke to Sithembile Mbete, political researcher and commentator as well as a PhD candidate in the political department at the University of Pretoria who says that code switching is a natural part of speaking different languages and living in a diverse country like South Africa. She says it's about wanting to be heard.

"Code switching doesn't mean a lack of authenticity, but in Mmusi Maimane's case it's about the danger that arises about your perception and position as a politician." She adds that code switching works against him because of the party he's aligned with. Because few people believe in the party's real transformation.

Were he in the EFF, he'd probably be congratulated for his clever politics. Instead, he's seen as inconsistent as his party is.

And related to perhaps the two latter types of capital, of course creeps in the question of intelligence, status and appeal.

Here's what the team had to say about it:

In coloured communities you're accused of being stuck up, or sturvy because you speak English and not Afrikaans. It’s happened to both my cousin and I when we used to go to friends’ house parties when we were younger. Speaking English meant that you thought you were better than anyone else. For me this was not only my first introduction into the language dynamics within our community, but also to the classism that still persists amongst coloured folk today. When you tried to speak Afrikaans, they’d laugh at us because of our pronunciation so we were never sure what to do and just kept to ourselves, which only cemented the perspective that we were haughty English speaking girls who thought we were better than others.
Tammy
There are people that are heavily criticised for being ‘coconut’ or sounding too white. They are often accused of trying be something that they will never be or valuing English more than their mother tongue. Also excluded from certain conversations because they speak with a coconut accent. It seems like you can’t win.
Lebo
I recently went on a date with someone who has such a heavy Jo'burg accent he says ‘and thet’ after every sentence. But he’s a doctor, so obviously not anything to do with intelligence. It’s awful how we categorise.
Marisa

So what is an accent? Oxford Dictionaries describes it as distinctive way of pronouncing a language, especially one associated with a particular country, area, or social class. 

We all know how a lot of us fawn over people with French, Italian, British and (sometimes) American accents. The way they enunciate English words comes with an association of refinement, culture and intelligence. It's part of this fascination and reverence South Africans have long had for the 'overseas'. 

Of course we all have our own particular biases when it comes to these and other countries but what I'd like focus more on is a South African context. And this thing called intelligence.

I also spoke to Monique Rissen-Harrisberg, the CEO of The Voice Clinic, to get some insight into how South Africans feel about their accents. And perceptions around what you 'sound' like.

I asked her what percentage of the people who come to them nationally (Jo'burg, Pretoria, Cape Town and Durban) ask for help with their accents.

Monique says "Sixty percent want to improve their pronunciation and accent, which includes both first and second language speakers of English." She says they're generally between 24 to 65 years old and their reasons for coming in are largely business-related. And that there's an even split of black and white clients.

  • Though 80 percent of clients are corporates who send employees for voice training, 20 percent are individuals who come in because they've lost their sense of confidence and feel they aren't understood or can't properly propose their ideas when they speak in a business setting.

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  • The number of people who contact The Voice Clinic has increased quite dramatically during recent years because there's a greater awareness about image and the impression you make. We all know that people judge us by the way we speak - in fact she says that about 38 percent of the message we convey hinges on it and the 'quality' of our voice can trump the content of what we say. 
  • Like putting on a power outfit, the way we speak is part of our calling card. Monique emphasises that no one comes looking to lose their accent (which they wouldn't encourage because it's a large part of who someone is and where they come from) but mainly to improve their clarity of speech and make sure that people understand them better.

Why? Reading this article that appears in Destiny Man about the politics of accents, the writer talks about how 'analysing AMPS data in his 2004 paper entitled Globalisation and the Returns to speaking English in South Africa, J [James] Levinsohn found that households in which English was listed as the mother tongue, were 15,8% more likely to participate in the labour market.'

Connected to that stat, accents play a large role here too. It plays into assumptions.

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English is the main official business language (and if you don't speak it 'properly' too, many people assume that you're not smart enough) as much as it's related to one's social class.

So if you're going to pronounce colonel as you spell it instead of kernel, chances are that someone is going to perceive that your education isn't up to scratch. Which is a deep burn because being bi- or multi-lingual as a lot of South Africans are, it is something to be celebrated, not ridiculed.

Of course being black and given opportunities because of the way that I talk is never lost on me, recognising the injustice of related attitudes. But neither are comments like the one below.

The blacker the accent, the lower the level of intelligence and power - the whiter the accent, the lower the level of wokeness or self-awareness and honouring of culture. There's that political capital.

Before continuing though, let's just make this absolutely clear. Blaccents are never acceptable. It's culturally appropriating people's accents to mock and ridicule them. Just no.

I'd like us to interrogate this form of racial and social bias and abuse, its related heartbreak, divisiveness and disempowerment. Along with a continuing cycle. 

I am not smarter, more trustworthy or going to work harder for someone because my accent signals proximity to whiteness. Conversely I am not less black or less deserving of a seat at the table on black issues.

Bongiwe Gumede, a researcher, wrote for the Huffpost in a piece about the second language struggle for kids in SA, that "the sad reality is that in as much as we are and have been victims of the ridicule, we at times end up being enforcers of the same kind of bullying. See the cycle? It needs to stop."

What's the solution? Sithembile says we can: 

  • Make sure that we employ and include more people that have authority, and are seen to have it across different languages, voices and accents.
  • Not ever bending to any or initiating calls to have someone removed from a position beacuse their accents aren't the same as you.
  • Lastly and also critically, self-acceptance that we are a diverse country.

Why wouldn't we all sound different?

What are your thoughts? We'd love to hear from you - you can mail us at chatback@w24.co.za.

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