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An Accent on Inequality

Unfortunately, how you sound may be how you're seen.

August 29, 2003|Firoozeh Dumas | Firoozeh Dumas grew up in Iran, as well as Whittier and Newport Beach. Her memoir "Funny in Farsi" (Villard) was published in June.

They're the heroes of the English-as-a-second-language set -- Arianna Huffington and Arnold Schwarzenegger, serious candidates for governor with serious foreign accents. On TV, on the radio and occasionally in print, their "in-der-es-ding" consonants and "You say tomahto" vowels tell the quintessential immigrant tale: America is the land of opportunity.

If you're like me, though, and your mom still hasn't quite mastered the W sound and your dad's Engineer Speak has always been better than his American slang, you might not be so sure. The truth is, when it comes to the American dream, not all accents are created equal. The devil is in the details: Where exactly are you from? What color marks today's homeland security threat level? Do all of your linguistic brethren have their green cards?

When I was in the second grade I moved with my family from Abadan, Iran, to America. It was 1972, and shopkeepers, teachers and neighbors found my mother's thick Persian accent charming. But after the Iranian revolution and "America Held Hostage," its popularity sank faster than Enron stock after the whistles blew.

Although Schwarzenegger and Huffington undoubtedly have faced prejudice because of the way they shape their American English, neither his Austrian nor her Greek intonations are likely these days to elicit the negative response that greets the echo of the Middle East in my family's voices, or, say, some Latino accents. Schwarzenegger's hint of World War II bad guys has its stereotypical dark side, but with time, high enough "Terminator" box office totals and Wolfgang Puck, those associations have gotten some readjustment.

The point is, it's all a matter of where your accent falls on the ever-evolving immigrant ladder of vocal success.

Consider French. Despite testy Franco American relations, speaking with a French twist remains more an asset than an accent. I remember one night, driving in San Francisco with a friend from Paris. She ran a stop sign and when the officer pulled us over to issue the well-deserved ticket, she called him Monsieur and said "I deed not see zee stop" and faster than you can say freedom fries, he let us go with a smile.

If an Iranian amoo of mine -- an uncle, on my dad's side -- laid on his accent twice as thick for a policeman I am quite certain there would be a different outcome. Even in much more mundane situations -- and with a minimal accent -- the reaction is clear. When my parents need to resolve something over the phone, I am the one who makes the call, in my Valley Girl Americanese. My father now handles all aspects of English quite well, but he can't help but give himself away as Middle Eastern when he talks, and that tends to guarantee him poor service. When I intervene and repeat my father's words, the problem disappears.

Surely someday, in the evolution of accents, the way my family sounds will no longer frighten people. Once upon a time in America, a heavy Irish brogue or Italian "deses" and "doses" meant poverty or worse. Now those accents elicit interest, not opprobrium. And somewhere down the line, the translation of Ws into Vs will conjure the Iranian culture I love -- aromatic rice dishes, brilliant hospitality, scholarly achievement, close-knit families. And did I mention aromatic rice dishes?

In the meantime, as the California recall unfolds I'll allow myself a little immigrant pride every time I hear Arnold and Arianna on the stump. But when someone with a Middle Eastern accent mounts the podium as a serious candidate for governor, that's when I'll call America truly the land of equal opportunity. I promise to stand on a rooftop and shout "Wow." Or as my mom would say, "Vow."

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