Concealing Accents / The ج

Languages connect us – and often literally reveal our nationalities. In Jordan, an Egyptian accent is quite distinct because of a single letter: the ج. Ours is a little rougher, like a slight choke sound, while the Levants pronounce it like a “Je,” almost like the French I. Till this day, it is obscure how Egyptians learned this accent, but it has been proposed that Yemenis brought it to our beloved nation. But what happens if you try to conceal this accent?

I found out first-hand in Jordan that it’s quite difficult. Imitating accents can be easy, but if your tongue slips back into its natural state, you cannot hide for cover. I was once visiting a souvenir shop to buy a decorated plate for my host, a simple gesture to thank him for his kindness, when the owner aggressively asked me, “Are you Egyptian?” I had been speaking in the Levant accent but often accidentally pronounced some words like an Egyptian. “Yes,” I responded. “Then speak Egyptian, I’ll understand you. You should be proud of the way you speak, of your heritage. It’s wrong to change your accent.” This man, in his twilight years, was, of course, wise to say this. I remember once heading to an Egyptian barbershop in Jordan and was so confused with my Arabic because it was hard to revert back to a full Egyptian accent. “You’ll know how to give instructions better if you just speak Egyptian,” Mohamed mentioned.

Changing my accent had revealed to me the somewhat troubling fact that my language is directly tied to my identity. It is unexpectedly difficult to shed a native accent because even if you succeed, your behavior might scream of your origin. Laughing is common among Egyptian men but not Jordanians. But travel also shows its mark in one’s language.

Once, in Jordan, I was riding an Uber when I was suddenly asked if I speak English fluently. I was surprised by his question, especially given that I had not uttered a single English word. “Yes, I studied in the States for about four years.” He smiled with a smirk, mentioning that “[I] didn’t accentuate all the Arabic letters.” It had been, more often than not, a way of making my thoughts flow faster following thought-pauses. My intermittent pauses revealed to him a non-Arab mindset, to an extent: I thought carefully before I spoke. These pauses are a staple of my speech. My time in the States, always speaking English, gave my English accent a screaming international accent – almost an American one – and ate away from my native Egyptian Arabic accent. More importantly, my time in the States changed my mindset to one that is critical and problem-solving oriented. I inquire, which can be unusual. And perhaps that is the great tragedy of this: I am to an extent of the Egyptian diaspora.

When I returned to Cairo a month ago to finish governmental bureaucratic processes, I still had a distinct Jordanian/Egyptian accent. I tried my best to revert quick to my full Egyptian accent, but I was bombarded with comments highlighting that my Arabic was “broken”. I pronounced my syllables longer, like Levants, and took pauses between sentences. I spoke a lighter Arabic, often accidentally saying Levant Arabic words. Egyptians usually do not travel to other Arab countries. After all, “Egypt is the world’s mother.” So my accent was foreign. I thought deeply about how my experiences had reshaped my English and Arabic but had pushed me to examine how people exercise language superiority. Both my languages seemed alien now to familiar ears, to friends whom I had reflected with on life. I’ve found ground again in my Egyptian Arabic but will forever cherish my learned ability to celebrate all accents – of those from the native land and the diaspora.

What makes an accent authentic? How does one lose an accent? What do the sounds of our mouths reveal about us? What do they not? What accents are discriminated against? Why? And how do we integrate those from the diaspora, celebrating both our differences and similarities?

Is home where an accent is unquestioned? All these questions yearn for answers. So let’s start the conversation.

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