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Review: South African accents

Though my interaction with real South Africans has not increased much at university, I have allowed the unconscious psychology within their accent to permeate my mind.

Before I commence this review in earnest I must make a few disclosures. Firstly, I do not have any South African ancestry. Secondly, I have never been to South Africa and do not have imminent plans to visit. Thirdly and most significantly, I have been publicly imitating the South African accent for the best part of a year.

Since I was very young I have been charmed and fascinated by accents. It is comforting to realise that the specific people and places of our upbringing are always with us, having left their more or less indelible mark on our speech. Accents can also offer fascinating clues about historical patterns of colonisation and political relationships. I live in a British settler colony established during the late 18th century and so I do not pronounce the letter R in words like car and market. Upper class English society dropped that specific feature (known as “rhoticity”) in the mid 18th century – too late to influence most of the newly independent Americans but just in time for the colony in Australia. Owing to a myriad of such subtle historical differences, I truly believe that the unique sounds of an accent reveal a lot about people.

For most of my youth, I had infrequent but distinctly unpleasant exposures to the unique sounds of South African English. I grew into an irrational dislike for the accent. If I encountered a teacher or parent or godforbid a peer with a South African accent I would grimace in discomfort. In my defense, South African accents seemed to consistently accompany the coldest and most judgemental interlocutors of my adolescence. I did not grasp the heinous correlation error I was committing like I now can as an enlightened and cosmopolitan 21 year old homosexual from Sydney’s Inner West. I apologise to all the warm and welcoming South Africans, who I am sure exist all around us.

This year, during some sultry January days, my ears were struck again by the vowel shifting sounds of South Africa. As I watched the Australian Open, I was thoroughly entertained by the then-unfamiliar voice of Robbie Koenig who sprinkled idiosyncratic South African-isms into his commentary. “Berrettini strahkes beck wuth A BULLIT”. “NADUHL US WORKUNG HUS FENS UNTO A RELUGOUS FERVOUR”. These sentences and others are etched into my hippocampus like fewer others. My relationship with the accent was already changing back then, and I scarcely knew it.

Inspired by Koenig’s commentary, my friend and I began to hone our South African accent imitation skills into a fledgling comedy routine. Once again, I apologise to those who have been subjected to it. Today our accents, exaggerated and imperfect as they may be, sound somewhat authentic if you do not listen too hard. They are highly practiced and regularly deployed, which has inspired others to join our project of cultural appreciation. Allport’s contact theory suggests that to understand a person all you need is to be regularly exposed to them. Though my interaction with real South Africans has not increased much at university, I have allowed the unconscious psychology within their accent to permeate my mind. I realise now that the South African accent is not cold or unfeeling but instead meditative and pensive. Just like the vowels in South African English, my perspective has shifted irrevocably. I commend the South African accent to all. Change your i’s to u’s and shift your yes into a “mmm, Yehz”, you will be so much the richer for it.

11:10: Meditative and pensive

Oscar Chaffey Medicine II