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Do we judge others based on their accents? In increasingly multicultural societies, does “accent-ism” exist as a reflection of racism, ethnocentrism, and nationalism?
From my experience, as much as we may cringe to admit it, it does. Allow me to explain.
Accents can be endearing. For example, my late grandfather had a thick Wisconsin/Upper Midwest accent, with attendant regionalisms. Notably, he often said “grease the skids”–derived from putting grease on the skis of a toboggan (sled) to ease its travel over snow. In his parlance, “grease the skids” meant to make something easier. As a result, when I meet people with that same accent, I feel camaraderie.
Accents can also convey beauty. Baha’i prayers chanted in Persian-accented Arabic uplift my soul.
Yet judging based on accents can also lead to pitfalls. Notably, one also needs to be careful in assuming nationality based on accents of non-native English speakers from similar or the same languages. Is that person Russian, Ukrainian, or Bulgarian? French, Swiss, or Belgian? Mexican, Guatemalan, or Salvadoran? German or Austrian? Danish, Swedish, or Norwegian? Jordanian, Lebanese, or Palestinian? Serb, Croat, or Bosnian? Malay or Indonesian? Malian or Chadian? Indian or Pakistani? PRC or Taiwan? Albanian or Kosovar?
Worse, snap judgements based on accents can raise barriers among us. Though I’m no sociolinguist, I’m painfully aware of the questions I ask myself and the determinations—favorable and unfavorable—I can form based on accents. Smarter or less intelligent? Black, White, Latino, Asian, European, Arab, or other? Education level? Older or younger? New York or Chicago? Recent immigrant or longtime resident? “He could have used a better word for that,” I catch myself thinking. In this vein, U.S. businesses and colleges offer “accent reduction” courses for English as a Second Language speakers to lessen such perceptions.
Yet “accent-ism” isn’t confined to native and non-native speakers of English. Because my Spanish “as a Second Language” is an imperfect mongrel of dialects, verb forms, and vocabulary, I can empathize with those who speak accented English. When I meet native speakers of Spanish, I’m aware of their curiosity and occasional sniggering because of my way of speaking their language. Concerning Spanish, a Colombian acquaintance recently lamented to me his challenge in understanding Central American dialects of that language. Potential for skewed perceptions based on accents also seems to be present in other languages such as Arabic, with dozens of dialects bound by a common, literary, Modern Standard Arabic, and Slovenian, with as many as fifty dialects within a small country of two million.
Baha’i Writings: Human Voices
In the context of the Baha’i writings, “accent,” translated from Persian and Arabic, can mean human vocal distinctions. For example, Baha’u’llah encourages us to: “Promote ye the development of the cities of God and His countries, and glorify Him therein in the joyous accents of His well-favored ones.” – Baha’u’llah, The Most Holy Book, p. 77. Baha’u’llah also wrote:
Know, moreover, that when We undertook to reveal these words and committed some of them to writing, it was Our intention to elucidate for thine eminence, in the sweet accents of the blessed and the well-favoured of God, all that We had previously mentioned of the words of the Prophets and the sayings of the Messengers … – Gems of Divine Mysteries, p. 77.
Baha’u’llah also discusses two distinct Arabic dialects/accents, that of the Hijaz (the Western Arabian Peninsula) and that of Iraq:
… We have, in Our former Tablets which were addressed to a friend in the melodious language of Ḥijaz, cited a few of the verses revealed unto the Prophets of old. And now, responding to your request, We again shall cite, in these pages, those same verses, uttered this time in the wondrous accents of Iraq, that haply the sore athirst in the wilds of remoteness may attain unto the ocean of the divine presence … – The Book of Certitude, p. 19.
A Divine Presence
Yet in the Baha’i writings, one could conclude that the term “accent” (translated from Arabic or Persian) connotes the voice and might of the divine messenger—not necessarily a human accent. The Baha’i teachings writings teem with such usage:
Within the throat of this Youth … there lie prisoned accents which, if revealed to mankind to an extent smaller than a needle’s eye, would suffice to cause every mountain to crumble, the leaves of the trees to be discolored and their fruits to fall; would compel every head to bow down in worship and every face to turn in adoration towards this omnipotent Ruler Who, at sundry times and in diverse manners, appeareth as a devouring flame, as a billowing ocean, as a radiant light, as the tree which, rooted in the soil of holiness, lifteth its branches and spreadeth out its limbs as far as and beyond the throne of deathless glory. – Baha’u’llah, quoted in Shoghi Effendi’s The World Order of Baha’u’llah, pp. 108-109.
… We have caused you to draw nigh unto the right side of Paradise—the Spot out of which the undying Fire crieth in manifold accents: “There is none other God besides Me, the All-Powerful, the Most High!” – Baha’u’llah, Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah, p. x.
Wert thou to incline thine ear to the melodies of that Nightingale which warbleth in manifold accents upon the mystic bough as bidden by thy Lord, the All-Merciful, thou wouldst cast away thy sovereignty and set thy face towards this Scene of transcendent glory … – Baha’u’llah, The Summons of the Lord of Hosts, p. 102.
Baha’u’llah even calls attention to Jesus Christ’s accent as an aspect of progressive revelation:
These are the melodies, sung by Jesus, Son of Mary, in accents of majestic power in the Ridvan [paradise] of the Gospel, revealing those signs that must needs herald the advent of the Manifestation after Him. – Baha’u’llah, The Book of Certitude, p. 24.
A Common World Language
We’ve seen that Baha’u’llah repeatedly and emphatically trumpeted the enchanting, soul-stirring qualities of accents, whether human or celestial. But there’s more to language in the Baha’i writings than that. The Baha’i teachings highlight the advent of a global language as a touchstone of human unity:
A world language will either be invented or chosen from among the existing languages and will be taught in the schools of all the federated nations as an auxiliary to their mother tongue. – Shoghi Effendi, The World Order of Baha’u’llah, p. 203.
But no one will be a native speaker of such a language if it’s invented, and not everyone will be a native speaker if it’s chosen. Even if it’s chosen, it’s safe to assume that native speakers will have their own respective accents—as is the case within the English-speaking world today. Hence, it’s reasonable to believe that when such a common tongue emerges, accents will be even more commonplace than they are now.
In this light, perhaps we can recast our views of foreign accents as potential barriers to each other, and begin to view them as wondrous, distinctive tokens of the divine that “grease the skids” of human unity.