By EMMA IANNI
Sometimes I say “bitch” and it sounds like “beach,” or vice versa — a confusion of sand, waves and insults. Sometimes I turn a “ship” into a “sheep,” sometimes “sheet” sounds like something else.
When I speak in a seminar for the first time, I always wonder whether my classmates will be able to understand what I’m saying and find the meaning across the rolled r’s and long e’s. I used to say “noh,” but my friend Wendy now says that I pronounce “no” like an American. Most people think that my accent is cute and smile as they benevolently mock my strong t’s. A friend who has been abroad once told me that my accent is the sign that I’m doing something courageous.
Only a few decades ago, Italian immigrants did everything they could to get rid of their heavy accents in an attempt of getting rid of its heavy implications. Today my rolled r’s glow with the European glamour as Americans perceive it, and my accent is often complimented. Many times I wished it would go away, and I thought of what it would be like to meet someone new and not having them asked where my accent is from.
Sometimes I have to repeat a word more than three times and other times I just use a synonym of easier pronunciation. I love to write and I have a rich vocabulary; I sound out the longer words in my head in a perfectly American accent, but when they come out the vowels never sound right — too open, too long, wrong stress.
I roll the r when I say Cornell and the guy at the desk in the Port Authority could not figure out where I needed to go. On my right shoulder my bag weighted, and on the tired clerk weighted the responsibility of dealing, at one in the morning, with a picturesque homeless who was having a heated argument with his hat, or the open guitar case in front of him, or the stars over New York or the dirty ceiling between him and them. I dragged my weights to the restroom, where I put lipstick on as if that red could help me, give me an answer: the number of a gate or an unrolled r. A woman with really grey eyes and thin eyebrows looked at the mirror from behind my shoulder and smiled. And I smiled back, an accentless smile, and she was able to tell me that my gate was 314.
I don’t know if my friend is right in saying an accent is a sign of courage or if it’s just the most obvious distinction between those who crossed an ocean or a border to get to Ithaca and those whose families crossed the same waters and lines generations ago. To me, the adjective “lucky” applies much better than “brave.” Lucky for the people who waited to find out my nationality from what I had to say and not from how I said it, and for those who asked right away and never applied a filter of exoticism to our friendship, for those who mocked with a smile and made me feel special and loved. Lucky for the professors who appreciated my ideas and argued with me during long seminars, for peers who responded to my contributions, lucky for the essays I had to write and for my personality that is fond of questions and provoking opinions and the spotlight, for the phone calls I had to make to reserve a table at Plum Tree for my birthday, lucky for my job in a dining hall that forced me to ask questions when I was learning and to answer them once I learned and to explain how the Mongolian grill works to the freshmen, who always forget to keep track of their order. And very lucky to be where every thought counts and is voiced among a chorus of unique accents.