A few years ago, an otherwise sweet Scandinavian told me he didn’t understand my ‘dialect’. This would have been perfectly understandable if I had been speaking in Yoruba or pidgin rather than in the English language I assumed I spoke so well. The first ten seconds afterwards were like a Nollywood flashback scene in slow motion: fragments of ‘me, a lawyer, winner of several oratory competitions in between many years of strike and some school, speaking in dialect? Thunder fire your mouth’. Of course, if I had been less sensitive and more sensible, I would have realized that my vocabulary-impaired friend assumed ‘accent’ was another word for ‘dialect’. An accent is fine. We all have one – Australians, British, Germans, and Nigerians. After all, when the Scandinavian big-mouth told me he ‘yenerally played shess’, my Yoruba tongue thought it was ‘tohtally hawesome’.
These days, I have lost the frenzied pace my speech used to have, carefully rounding off my ‘th’s, and more sensitive to my listener’s ears. I’ll also admit that few people outside Lagos can keep up with the quasi-aggressive Lagosian pitch. So, I probably speak a little differently at work and with friends. The former sounds a lot calmer and polite; the latter, exuberant and ‘warm’. But I like my accent and it’s a good thing I don’t have to lose it to work on radio. I like that it identifies with Professor Soludo’s smoky Igbo, Omotola Ekehinde’s CNN-lauded Yoruba inflection, and the tonal thump of Tuface’s Idoma.
I love the way my sound tells something about me – the way it hints at my roots, at the words in which I said my first prayers, and the languages my grandmothers spoke. And I love my language: the words I choose and how I use them. If you listen carefully, you’ll hear the books I’ve read, the music I like, and the way my father raised me. I like the way ‘how now’ only makes sense to English speaking West Africans and the way I can say a transliterated ‘did you sleep well’ with a straight face. I feel warm when I hear an empathetic ‘pele’ and look forward to the lazy ‘oh’ at the end of every sentence. I like our fascinating rules of decorum –in your face conversations with people you’ve met for five seconds, or the way someone screams your name from across the road when a wave would have done quite well. I don’t even mind genuflecting at pot-bellied strangers who speak to me in Yoruba.
It is increasingly important to me to remind myself that my difference isn’t awful or inferior. I’ll like to keep something for the children I hope will come - how to make and enjoy yummy eko and scrumptious egusi. I’ll like to help them discover the oomph that scalding peppers add to every soup (or lose their taste buds trying to find it) and to cook without measuring spoons. These days, I’ve been rediscovering Tunji Oyelana, Jimi Solanke, I.K. Dairo, while keeping up with parties where D’banj, M.I, and Mode 9 rule. I pretend to stay humble when I hear other Africans rave about Nigerian artistes; I am proud of Nollywood and what it will become.
Yet, the world flattens every second and I keep something of the world with me. It will be foolish to insist my tonal tongue transform my speech to incomprehensible gibberish. So, when I practice my French, I’m careful to attempt a Parisian accent. These days, I write my seven syllable ‘Oluwafunmilayo’ as ‘Funmi’, while wondering if it keeps some of the emotion my parents felt when they chose my name. I love Tchaikovsky and wish I saw Pavarotti in concert before he passed. I read books from authors who have no idea a Nigerian girl would read them but skip the silliness from my Nigerian brother, Vic O - because I can.
It is a balance I am trying to find, a deeper appreciation of my own, remembering and relearning, while adapting to other communities that make us part of one earth, and doing this with the smug Nigerian humility of ‘giving glory to God’. And I like it that way.
YNaija kindly published this here.