The Identity in Language

The Uber driver looked at me confused when I entered the backseat of his car. Puzzled he looked at me through the rearview after we exchanged hellos and he asks “So what is your name again?”

I replied with my name pronouncing it as ‘Kahli’ not “Qali”, not wanting this to turn into a long journey of explaining how in the Somali language ‘Q’ sounds like the Arabic ‘غ’ and in English the closest would be a ‘GH’ sound and as I have experienced too many times most people who predominantly speak English will have difficulty pronouncing my name properly and as much as it may not be tiring for them, it is for me.

Needless to say after the Uber Driver mentioned that my name sounds ‘Mzungu’ (i.e. a term referring to foreigners) I had to give him the entire phonetic history of what my name really really is.

This isn’t the first time, when I met one of my best friends on the first day of my Master’s course, she overheard me introducing myself and a couple of months later was like “Girl, when you introduced yourself as ‘Kahli’, I was like there is no way that this Somali girl’s name is that and I told my Somali friend about it”. Even my dad makes fun of me, and to be honest it’s more of me saving myself than sparing you. Each time I have to go through it I think some part of me is reminded that as much as I am this ‘Child of the World’, it’s not like I was given a choice, I am from a land that for all intents and purposes is struggling and I have never stepped foot on the soil of my ancestors.

So I went to watch Black Panther about two weeks ago, and one of the things I noticed, and that Chadwick Boseman (the lead actor in the movie) had mentioned a couple of times in interviews is the deliberate choice to have almost the entire cast have some sort of African accents, although (1) no Marvel movie has ever done that and (2) some people’s worry that the audience won’t connect with the movie. There are actors with accents influenced by West, East and South Africa, almost tying into the colour symbolism of Pan-Africanism that could be seen in parts of the movie. There was an interview where Boseman described that the decision came through what Wakanda represented. If this is a nation that is hidden away, and has never been touched by colonialism then the English language and western higher education are not the ideal because they realise the worth of their land, heritage and culture. It had me question myself a bit, somewhere deep down are we’re more acquainted with the English language, and are we so deep in it that we’re willing to erase our names…anglicise our entire existence just to get by?

Today when the world is so interconnected and more and more languages are dying while more and more people learn how to speak English, I wonder how does language play a part in the identities of people who’s first or second languages aren’t it. Where many more people today can call themselves TCKs (third culture kids; kids that grow up predominately outside of their parents’ cultures), how do we stick to our history?

I had to learn English when I was around 8 or 9 because we moved to Malawi and I was placed in a British International School. That’s why I spell ‘mum’ and ‘colour’ the way I do and I pronounce water the way I do (you know which one). I have no particular ties to this language, I don’t find it particularly poetic or beautiful, it helps me get by. I don’t get worked up when Americans and Brits talk about the ‘proper’ way to speak the language because I’ve seen people from the most remote villages in some African countries speak it. Some call it pigeon-English, others cannot pronounce certain letters because they don’t exist in their mother tongue and it’s all English no matter what a ‘nose-in-the-air’ purist feels. This is the new world order.

We continuously have to bend our tongue in ways that feel unnatural but yet no one will ever do the same for us. We’re a little to foreign for home and a little to other for the here. To be honest I don’t care much about how people pronounce my name because I am fortunate to still  hear and speak the warmth of my language every single day. I am from a proud people and that’s why, accent or not, I’m still me. I’m comfortable with my place and what it means to have different cultural influences on your life and outlook. When we yearn to belong, there is a chip on our shoulders about proving our authenticity, but there shouldn’t be. Bring all the different parts of you to the forefront and show how all these existences can co-exist because they can.

Trust me I have had many people comment on how ‘white’ I sound, but does that make me less than? I say HELL NO!

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