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Nashwaak Review - Volume 6-7

The Accent of the Other

Colm J. Kelly

I have been asked to speak about the experience of being an Irish immigrant in New Brunswick, in the form of a more or less personal memoir. I hope what follows will hint at why it is difficult or even impossible for me to do this. The anecdotes that come to me suggest that in the end we do not have a language of our own in which we could talk about what we like to believe are our own experiences. So I am afraid that my talk may disappoint you. But I believe that something like this disappointment is inevitable, and that in a strange way it should be welcomed. When we welcome the stranger or the other mustn't we welcome him or her especially if they disappoint us?
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You may perhaps have noticed that I have a Canadian accent. I am Irish-born and raised; I came here as a young adult, but I retain only the slightest traces of my 'own' accent [I place this word 'own', in quotation marks, for reasons which I will be hinted at later.] The absence of my own accent, or the acquisition of a Canadian accent, can discomfit others - my family in Ireland, other Irish-born people, sometimes Canadians also, and at times myself. At other times it allows me to be invisible, to carry the secret around within me that I am not Canadian, or not just Canadian. This can also be potentially disturbing and perhaps even verges on dishonesty on my part. I recall once a friend here confiding to me his concerns that immigrants to Canada expect too much, are ungrateful, and so on, apparently forgetting who he was speaking to.

I once heard someone - perhaps it was on the radio in the context of a discussion of bilingualism - say that English was the only language in which he would never have an accent. Of course it would be easy to show that this was not true, that in fact, he had a Canadian accent, which he could not hear. Your accent always comes from the other: it is the other who hears your accent, and this is true even when you can hear your own accent - in that case it is the other in you hearing the accent. So at first this statement struck me as naive, and even disturbingly ethnocentric. But later, as I thought about it, I began to think that perhaps it expressed not a reality but a wish or a hope, a beautiful but impossible hope, that one could fit perfectly into one's language and that it in turn would fit you perfectly, leaving no trace or deformation, no accent in the words one articulates transparently. Or it might be the wish for a perfect community, in which all placed the same accent on reality, in which there was no foreigner or immigrant to hear your accent, or to speak with an accent, and thus no chance of being inadvertently reminded that after all you and yours do have an accent. Here the beautiful dream was again becoming slightly sinister.

Coming from Ireland and from Dublin, I have never been able to partake of this dream of speaking without an accent, or of speaking with my country-men and women with one accent. Dublin is a very monolingual English speaking city, but despite the seeming simplicity of the linguistic situation, the interplay of accents and idioms there is acute and dense. There is first the central distinction between Dublin and the 'country.' The tens of thousands of people from other parts of Ireland living in Dublin have 'country' accents. [It is said that adepts can identify a distinct accent for each of the thirty two counties of Ireland.] In addition, those from the the North have northern accents. There is often gentle hostility, veiled or open, in the attitude of the Dubliner to the country accent. Within Dublin there is the major distinction between the middle-class accent and the working-class accent. The latter is called colloquially, a ‘Dublin accent.' The middle-class accent is thus considered to be unmarked by those who speak it, closer to some supposed standard pronunciation. The person with this accent will typically say that they do not have an accent, and to a greater or lesser extent, consciously or not, will look down on the working-class or Dublin accent. In addition, there is a sort of Anglo-Irish accent, spoken by far fewer people, which moves closer to the so-called received pronunciation, and so which sounds a little more 'British.'

In my own family, my mother and sister speak with a middle-class accent, which they very consciously and deliberately differentiate from the ‘Dublin accent.' My father speaks with a by now very muted Northern accent, since he left Derry nearly sixty years ago. My two brothers speak in middle-class accents, but with slight if distinct traces of the 'Dublin accent', thus producing a difference between their accents and those of my mother and sister. Growing up in this situation, I was always aware of accents. They were never something which could be taken for granted. One had to more or less decide - of course it is not really a decision - whether to cultivate the middle-class accent of the home or the Dublin accent of the streets, and the ‘decision' in my case and that of many others was made more complex by the fact that one of my parents did not speak in any of the available Dublin accents, and so did not have a casting vote, so to speak.

In addition to the dense and often tense interplay of accents, there are a variety of idioms or ways of speaking available. Country speech is often still heavily influenced by the idioms and the syntax of Irish Gaelic, giving rise to some of the most distinctive features of Hiberno-English. Working-class Dublin speech has its own idioms, and perhaps above all its own rhythm and style, which can give rise to a certain linguistic virtuosity, captured recently in the well-known books and films of Roddy Doyle. My own speech was much closer to so-called standard English, as was typical for middle-class Dubliners, and I never felt comfortable in the idioms of the streets. For example, I recall having to learn from one of my lecturers at Trinity College, who was English, that a newborn baby boy is welcomed in parts of working class Dublin with the phrase, ‘there's another one for the street.' Always looming behind these idioms of English is the Irish language itself, which everyone learns, more or less well, throughout primary and secondary school. We all must have known or sensed at some level, then, a disjuncture between our mother tongues and our native language. This is a common experience for the children of immigrants, but more unusual for the Irish in that the disjuncture takes place at home, already there before we leave or if we stay. At home we are already not at home.

Thus there was no accent or idiom or language which I could call my own and each utterance seemed suspended on an undecideable border, traversed by the different idioms of the street and the home, between which it was both impossible and necessary to choose.

In my own case, my paternal great-grand-parents were mother-tongue Irish speakers from Donegal. Upon immigrating to Derry city they decided to speak to their children in English only, believing it would better serve them economically. They thus repeated a decision made by tens of thousands of other Irish families at the time, which together contributed to the decline of the Irish language. My paternal grand-parents could not understand a word of Irish, although they knew by heart certain idioms and phrases. My father, growing up in Northern Ireland, was able only to take Irish in secondary school as a modern foreign language, in the same way that he could take French. Nevertheless, he studied it with a passion, going to the Donegal Gaeltachts in the summer, and as a result he acquired a very fluent knowledge of the language. Myself and my brothers and sisters, growing up in the Republic, had again a different relationship to the Irish language. Learning it from the first day of primary school, we all acquired a good knowledge of it, and also a liking for it. Nevertheless, at least in my case, my liking for Irish was tempered by a distaste for the quasi-official, strongly nationalist viewpoint of church and state, to which unfortunately, the Irish language had been closely linked.

My reflections, not for the first time, on these matters are incited by the fortuitous appearance of a new short book by Jacques Derrida, entitled, Monolingualism of the Other [Le monolinguisme de l'autre, Galilée, 1996]. Derrida, alluding to his own childhood in Algeria, describes how he could study German and English in the lycée, in addition to his French mother tongue, but not Arabic and Berber, the native languages of the country where his ancestors had lived for over a hundred years. He writes in the voice of a narrator: ‘I have only one language, but it is not mine.' I am reminded of Stephen in Joyce's Portrait of the Artist, in conversation with the English rector of his school, who has just corrected his choice of words. Stephen thinks resentfully that ‘English will always be his language before it is mine.' But Derrida is not resentful of his different kind of linguistic dispossession. He continues: ‘The language which we call the mother tongue is never purely natural, or proper or habitable. To inhabit, here is a value sufficiently disconcerting and equivocal: we never inhabit that which we are in the habit of calling habitable.' I am reminded of my own mother tongue, that which I seem to command and to speak fluently: Is it standard English or Hiberno-English, or middle-class Dublin English, or Canadian English, or some unidentifiable mixture of these and other traits? Every relationship to language is a relationship of dispossession or non-propriety, since one never truly masters the language one believes oneself to be fluent in. Nevertheless, we believe or dream that we have one language which is ours. I recall my youthful commitment to speaking and writing a very correct standard English, which meant avoiding much of the most distinctive syntax and vocabulary of Hiberno-English, even as I sensed that English was not my native language, and felt equally uncomfortable with any phrasings that sounded particularly 'English.' Derrida tells us that he had and still has the attitude of a perfectionist towards French, it seems because, coming from Algeria, French is not quite his and so must be appropriated by him all the more forcefully. But this language of our own which we must dream of, is never ours, and is never simply one language, unmarked by the differential traits of idiom, accent, drift, borrowings and so on. Derrida again: ‘One speaks only a single language. One never speaks a single language.' He continues: ‘One speaks only one language, and it is dissymmetrically, returning to oneself, always, to the other, from the other, watched over by the other. Come from the other, remaining with the other, returning to the other.' The fact that the Irish have been dispossessed of their native language, and the fact that in my case I have lost my native idiom and accent, are not, appearances to the contrary, only accidents of history or of biography. They also point towards an original condition or possibility of the relationship to language and culture.

I have imposed upon you enough details of the linguistic circumstances in Dublin in my family. What happened to this dense history, or this ‘baggage' as we say, when I arrived alone in New Brunswick in 1981, as a young man? Perhaps if I was to be perfectly honest I would say very little. There were few familiar co-ordinates here. There was no trace of Irish culture In Fredericton, or at least none that I could detect, except perhaps for an occasional Irish group, which as I recall used to play from time to time in a local pub. This was perhaps all for the best. I was able, it seems, to throw off my past quite lightly, although I don't really believe that this is possible. But perhaps it was the dream or fiction of being able to do this that in some secret way drew me to the 'new world', as it used to be called. It seems that you can re-invent yourself here, as my sister once commented when we were visiting Montreal together and we were both surprised by the self-confidence and vitality of the street life there. But I do remember one of the first of many re-encounters with Ireland, which with me it seems always took place in the medium of books, of film or of history, and seldom in the streets or the pubs. One of the first people I met here was Alfred Bailey, who I discovered as I was revising this, died on April 21st, 1997 in Fredericton. We chatted in the Harriet Irving Library, and he told me that Douglas Hyde, who would later would become the first president of Ireland, had been a visiting professor of modern languages at the University of New Brunswick in the late nineteenth century. Hyde, who was Anglo-Irish and Protestant, was a nationalist and a prominent scholar of the Irish language. This welcome to Canada by the other who knew about my culture and who was able to tell me about an earlier Irish person who had been welcomed to Canada, and this reminder of the linguistic and cultural complexity of modern Ireland pleased me, and it also pleased me on a recent visit to Ireland be able to tell my father about Hyde's stay here, and to give him a copy of an article on the topic.

By 1983 I had moved to Toronto, and it was here that I was able to start to re-connect, or perhaps to connect for the first time, to Irish culture. I began to read more Irish history and literature. Irish films gradually began to appear at the Toronto Film Festival, and I tried to see them all. In 1984 at the University of Toronto I took a course from the French philosopher Jacques Derrida, whose work I have already referred to, and to which I had been introduced in Dublin the late 1970's. The course was about Descartes, but in the seminars after the lectures it became clear that his real passion at the time was James Joyce. In a private meeting - which he had with each student in the course - he soon found out that I was Irish. He asked me immediately if I had read Ulysses. To my embarrassment I had to reply that I had not, although I might have added, like so many others, that I had intended to for some years. He next asked me was it true that in Irish there is no way of replying simply yes or no to a direct question. I confirmed that this was the case, and later explained it to him in some detail, after consulting in the Robarts Library an Irish grammar book by the Irish Christian Brothers. At any rate, after the course I spent two leisurely weeks reading Ulysses. As is so often the case, or as is always the case, as Derrida might say, it is through, by way of, and from the other, that we return or turn for the first time to what we take to be our own culture.

I recall that when I was first planning to leave Ireland, I was talking to the lecturer - again he was English - at Trinity College Dublin who had had the most influence on me at that time. Jokingly he suggested that I was choosing exile, a 'long and noble tradition in Ireland.' I had immediately thought of Joyce and Beckett. With modern telecommunications and transport it would be dramatic and inaccurate to speak of exile. Nevertheless I was able to situate myself in a certain experience of nomadism or in-between-ness, of being in neither one place or another. This may have played a part in my interest in Derrida and in my ability to receive his work, a work which evokes thematics of the margin, the nomad, and the border.

After having spent 11 years in Ontario, I returned to the Maritimes in 1994. Here I discovered a living interest in Irish culture at the universities, an interest to which this conference itself attests. I found this stimulating, but not without its problems. The elements of Irish culture in the maritimes, which I was by now able to recognize, are by no means congruent with Irish culture in Ireland. Irish culture here is older; it seems anachronistic with respect to the urban sophistication of Dublin, for example. But I have started to realize that I myself am probably in an incongruous relationship to the many strata and rhythms of Irish culture. I was raised in a 1960's Ireland which was emerging from a long-period of post-Independence isolation and provincial nationalism, and was beginning to modernize, a modernization from which I benefited personally. Too impatient to wait for the changes which were already coming, I left for Canada, and as I hinted earlier, developed a relationship to and sort of identification with the great Irish modernists - Joyce as I already mentioned, but to a greater extent Beckett. This identification, undoubtedly somewhat artificial, is with those writers who are the most resolutely modern and cosmopolitan, and certainly in the case of Beckett, whose Irishness seems almost accidental. Furthermore, their formative years were in pre-independence Ireland, or certainly prior to the later dominance of nationalist discourse. Thus my relationship to Irish culture was indirect and staggered. This indirection and temporal torsion has perhaps increased recently, as the Ireland I left behind seems to be moving towards an affluent, almost post-nationalist, and perhaps European identity, about which I know little. Out of place and out of time in my relationship to Ireland, perhaps I am like all emigrants in relation to their mother countries.

Several years after taking the course from Derrida, I came across his essay on Joyce which he had been writing at the time I had met him. To my delight I found that he discussed in a footnote the information about the ‘yes' in Irish which I had given to him, or at least had confirmed for him. There was no reference to me or acknowledgement of me in the footnote. This did not upset me. On the contrary it increased the pleasure, since a gift, as Derrida himself has shown us, is only truly a gift when it is given in a state of absolute and impossible anonymity, in the impossible condition where there is no expectation or hope of acknowledgement or return. The ‘yes' in Joyce is for Derrida a sort of absolute affirmation, a saying yes to whatever may come, a sort of mad openness, a gift to the future. When last year preparing to publish something on Derrida's analysis of the ‘yes', I happened on an article in, I believe, The Atlantic, about a small supermarket in Manhattan, which catered to over forty different ethnic and linguistic communities. The owner saw his store as a beacon of hope, a sort of United Nations of commerce, where he found that all people, despite their many differences, had something fundamental and important in common: the need and ability to ask for what they want. He added, all except the Irish, who seemed to have difficulty saying directly what they wanted. This reticence, reserve or discretion certainly struck a chord in me, and I thought it must be connected to the Irish reluctance to say ‘yes' directly, and wondered if it is not a good thing be a little dislocated from such ‘globalized' economic common sense.

I have talked so far about how in a sense I distanced myself, perhaps consciously or unconsciously, from certain typical or stereotypical manifestations of Irish culture. But at the same time I was also obsessed with Ireland. I call it my Hiberno-compulsive disorder. I sometimes followed people who I thought or imagined to have heard speaking with an Irish accent, but of course never speaking to them, since my Canadian accent would have led to multiple misunderstandings. I also listen for and read every news item I can find to do with Ireland, and like other Irish people I am struck by how many foreign aid workers interviewed in the media turn out to be Irish. I am sure, like others, that this Irish penchant for involvement in foreign aid and famine and crisis relief is connected to a collective and cultural memory of the great famine, and also to a certain free generosity, a yes-saying. Certainly, the theme of solidarity with oppressed and hungry people elsewhere was repeatedly emphasized by President Robinson. I remember the first university course I taught, in the summer of 1987 at the University of New Brunswick in Fredericton. There were several first nations students in the class and it was clear that some of them were having difficulty with the material. I remember one student in particular, obviously bright, who seemed to wear on her face an invisible smile of bemusement, as if she could not take what we were doing seriously. At the end of the course one of the English Canadian students in the course [it is so difficult in Canada to know what to call people!] commented to me how I had dealt with the first nations students very evenly and fairly. I felt that this comment was condescending and patronizing, and so I replied, undoubtedly exaggerating and taking a risk, that the Irish, in terms of their history of colonization, were more like the first nations of the new world than they were like the English or French colonizers of Canada.

As an immigrant I also find myself attached to Canada as a whole, not to any of its regions, however much I might like Toronto or the beautiful and varied countryside of the Maritimes. I came to Canada, from the margins of Europe to perhaps the last great European experiment, on the tip of the world, and it is to this idea of Canada that I am attached - although I should add that my memory of my lost native language also makes me sympathetic, at least initially, to the claims of Quebec nationalism, but perhaps especially to the efforts to protect the French language. I am also attached to the idea of Canada as a great welcomer of refugees and immigrants. In the summer of 1996 I was on the medieval walls of Derry - my father's city - with my brother. There are historical displays on the walls detailing the troubled history of that city from the sixteenth century on. Outside the walls in the Bogside the huge political wall murals attest to a more recent history. To my great pleasure, we came across a display containing a poster from I think the 1870's, advertising the last sailing of that year, to Saint John, New Brunswick. Later at the Harriet Irving Library I found a book consisting entirely of the names of passengers from Derry to Saint John and other North American ports during the famine, and I imagined that some of them must have read posters similar to the one I had seen.

And so it is this idea of a great impossible - and I stress impossible - multicultural, multilingual experiment, which I love about Canada. I cannot tell you the shock and anger I felt over the torture and murder of that defenceless sixteen year old stranger, Shidane Arone, on March 16th 1993 in Belet Huen in Somalia; a brutal killing there where the stranger or the other most needed protection and welcoming. I remember feeling that my fellow-Canadians seemed to under-react to the horror of this event, but I said nothing, perhaps feeling that as a stranger myself it was not my place to comment, or that I was misreading the situation. Now I hope that in reflecting on how the stranger is different to us, and comes to us with the accent of the other, we will remember that this other, who is so far away, may also be so close, right beside us, or even inside us.