Praise for mine and all accents 

By Marilu Gasparo

“Why does it bother you so much?” a northern Italian colleague asked me when he saw that I was annoyed after he had repeated a sentence of mine and tried to imitate my southern Italian accent. I didn’t answer the question, but inwardly I thought: do I really have to explain why this bothers me?

The word is an instrument that unites, that connects, that establishes relationships. It is not the only means of connection we have, but it is very powerful, it is quick and it is simple.

There are countless languages, and within each language there are often many dialects, many accents, many words that may only have a specific meaning in one region or even in one city.

This versatility makes the word an instrument that is not always universal, but very fascinating.

People who know other languages in addition to their mother tongue often evoke fascination.

Who knows why, but this form of fascinated recognition is often only reserved for those who have learnt a foreign language for pleasure, for professional reasons or because they had the privilege of attending secondary school. Not for those who may have been forced to learn this language without a teacher, without school. Those who have not travelled for pleasure, but who have learned a language in order to survive in another country that promised them and their children a better life. Do they not deserve the same respect as those who fascinate us so much because they learnt several languages “just like that”?

Not only are they often shown no respect, but the so-called natives of the “right” part of the world or country also feel entitled to imitate the accent in the language that is the mother tongue of the newcomers. The language they have known since childhood and which does not give them a headache after listening to it for hours and trying to understand it. The long-established natives of the “right” part of the world feel entitled to laugh at the wrong verb, the wrong article, without realising that they are the only ones laughing.

I’ve had an accent for many years now. Actually, I’ve had it since I learnt to speak, but I only discovered it later. Italy, my country, has been witnessing a migration phenomenon for decades, with people moving from the south to the north to study or work because there are factories in the north. The factories where our grandparents spent a large part of their lives, the factories that promised prosperity and still do today.

So I too, supported by my parents, who dreamed of central and northern Italy with me, left the south at the age of 19 to go to university. I left with a bag full of privileges. Privileges that many migrants from other countries can only dream of or not even dream of. And I left with my southern accent.

An accent that I’m aware of because people recognise me as a southern Italian through my accent. An accent that I’m aware of because someone smiles with amusement when I say something… That’s why it doesn’t make me laugh when someone imitates my accent. Because the result is that we can’t laugh together, but that people laugh at me.  

Since that hour when I left my region of origin, I have returned to my home region to visit my family, for example during the semester break or on holiday, but never permanently. Since then I’ve lived in Spain for a while, then in Germany, and so I’ve learnt new languages, and maybe I’ve acquired some of that charm, but anywhere I’m not in my region of origin, I now have an accent when I speak. I have an accent when I speak the foreign languages I know, and I have an accent when I speak my mother tongue outside my home region. I have an accent from the south, the accent of all the southern Italian migrants looking for work in the north, of factory workers who are considered ignorant, of workers who are said to be too attached to their families and their culinary traditions.

That’s why I get annoyed when someone imitates my accent, because I too, a privileged migrant, cherish the memory of migrants from the south who didn’t want to leave their region and yet bravely did so.

I am angry because our stories deserve respect, because they are stories of courage, stories of being away from family, stories of those who have learnt to let go.

Words are identity, because through words we express who we are. So I am proud to express my story through my accents too.

I want all migrants to be proud of their courage and for us all to realise this. Realise that sometimes, without meaning to, we all uphold a stigma. To become aware that many forms of racism are internalised by society to such an extent that even those who embrace values such as equality and respect can unwittingly become victims – but also perpetrators – of oppressive behaviour.

No privilege is a personal mistake or a disgrace, but every privilege brings with it a responsibility that we must be aware of.

Translated by Joeline O’Reilly

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