Chameleons and Social Evolution

This piece was written by Luyanda Madliwa.

If you asked a chameleon if it felt like it was not being true to itself, what do you think it would say? Would it feel shame, or pride due to its continued survival? In reality, a chameleon probably wouldn’t respond, they aren’t skilled conversationalists. However, the reason for my asking this is that the chameleon is one of the most visually striking examples of Darwinian evolution. The theory that a species must adapt to its environment in order to survive is evident through the chameleon’s distinct colour changes. Animals adapt to their environment without a second thought, but humans tend to view their own adaptations through the lens of betraying one’s true self. I use the chameleon to harken back to Trevor Noah’s novel “Born A Crime,” I identify with his description of himself as a social Chameleon, but where he bridged the gap through language, I do it through accent.

I was taught English at a very young age, and because of where I have grown up, all my English teachers have been white people. What this meant for a young Luyanda, ever eager to please, was that I would try to speak English exactly as my teachers did. To speak English as I heard it, in my mind, would demonstrate my understanding of what they were saying. It would signify my success in learning the language. The English accent remains a pervasive part of my education. It is in the DNA of many of our country’s private schools that these are the spaces of the English. When questioned, most St John’s boys agreed that this is “A European school in Africa.” What this means practically is that the power at this institution lies with European doctrine. This informs the adaptations of a student like me, for whom getting good marks at school – such as in this English speech (wink, wink) – is my top priority. As South Africans, we can be very naive about the effects of Apartheid propaganda on how white people view black people. For my purposes, the most important of these lingering perceptions is that black people are inherently unintelligent. Many of my teachers would have spent their formative years being fed this narrative. Fortunately, the human brain is very easy to fool. In Trevor Noah’s words “English comprehension is equated with intelligence.” To speak like a white person is to subconsciously communicate that you are like them. To be seen as similar to the English in a place where they have all the power is beneficial in ways directly linked to my goal. The assumption of competency that my voice grants me is key to academic success. An 85% by the Dux Scholar is more likely to get a second look than an 85% from a regular A student. [In Mandela accent:] “It helps to know that when listening to a speech of mine, people aren’t ignoring the content and fixating on the accent;” That when asking a question, I am more likely to receive a direct answer than a condescending one. It is because I am less directly performing blackness than my peers, I am less subject to racial bias.

Mmusi Maimane could also be seen performing this trick as leader of the Democratic Alliance and was met with an outpour of criticism from the Black African population. To illustrate why Maimane accent changes were, I’ll contrast him with a more successful example: that of my father. The first factor is intent. My Xhosa father would be unable to perform his job successfully if he could not get as much information from his Zulu patients. Because Maimane’s other accents are on display for all to see, it was clear he was pandering to the black audience. Where one seeks to aid the other seeks to pander. The second point concerns accuracy. What Maimane’s accent was imitating was often unclear, being described as a “black accent” or “coloured accent” or Afrikaans or a bizarre mix of all of them. My father’s Zulu, on the other hand, is spoken so fluently that people find it difficult to distinguish him from a native speaker. Maimane’s and my father’s example serves to demonstrate that even those in power recognise the utility in a characteristic like accent, it also serves as a grim warning that when done poorly, changing your accent can further isolate you from those you seek to connect with.

The role of accents in society extends beyond our Rainbow nation, the world over they are constantly informing how we are perceived by others, and one accent can elicit a range of emotions in different people. For example, the Afrikaans accent was voted the second sexiest language form in the world for its unique tone. Needless to say, it does not hold that same esteem in the land of its creation. When

looking at English and accents, class is a factor that’s hard to ignore. In a country with as rigid a class divide as England. George Bernard Shaw famously said “it is impossible for an Englishman to open his mouth without making some other Englishman despise him.” This can be seen in the British music of the 1970s, where the ten minute long songs and posh accents of progressive rock bands like Pink Floyd and Genesis which were seen by the working class as typical examples of upper-class excess, and the reaction by the working-class was the creation of punk rock, with bands like the Sex Pistols’ shorter more immediate songs, cockney accents, and strongly anti-establishment sentiment. The sense of power the English accent holds, particularly using received pronunciation, the equating of it with intelligence, largely vanishes outside of the commonwealth. Natives of Francophone countries tend to retain a French accent even if they find themselves living in the Anglophone world, Premier League footballers like Riyadh Mahrez (Algerian) and Sadio Mane (Senegalese) come to mind. This speaks to the fact that the accent finds itself at the intersection between culture, language and politics.

There are many different species of chameleon, which exist in vastly different habitats. This massively impacts on how their skin looks and which colour changes they perform. One species of chameleon would quickly perish in the environment of another. The adaptations we make to suit one environment won’t have the same effect in another. However, we are not chameleons, and the existence of speech is evidence of that. Transcending past the need to simply survive, accent works in conjunction with language to connect us with our fellow man. English is spoken in every corner of the globe, the reasons for that stem from imperialism and its after effects. However, the world’s different English accents weave a dense tapestry of the world’s different cultures. Used effectively, it can help people identify those of similar origin to them in other parts of the world through voice, and can connect us through shared cultural experience, as Trevor Noah often does through his use of accent. To try and flatten these cultures by enforcing a homogenous view on how English should be spoken would be to continue a trend of cultural erasure that the English have participated in for centuries. Society should not be viewed as a group of chameleons fighting to survive, but an ecosystem in its own right and like any ecosystem, diversity is key to society not just continuing to exist, but flourishing.