Accented Speech

Agha Asif, by analyzing the emergence of a particularly privileged way of speaking British English, so-called “Received Pronunciation,” shows the close, indivisible relationship between the way language is performed and cultural value ascribed to this performance. Not only “received pronunciation” of the speaker marks her social, economic, and educational high status, but it also shapes discursive practices in which she participates.

The variety of versions of speaking English has always been my fascination, probably because it is a personal matter of an English speaker whose speech is marked with accent. My accent defines not only the way my interactions go in the English-speaking environments, but also the very content of these interactions, for instance requiring me to unfold a variation of a personal story providing my interlocutor with information he requests from a foreigner to define the character of emerging communication and to ascertain my identity.

Despite that Agha dismisses the term “accent” as a folk concept, accent marks the belonging of the speaker to “some other group” (a remarkably precise Agha’s formula); it organizes daily experiences in a variegated assortment of unprecedented ways within a continuity of discovering foreignness, otherness, and difference.

The accent is a heavily loaded marker of a social, national, cultural identity, and it comes with a system of assigned meanings “through the use of identifying labels” (Agha, 2007, 233). I would add, that the normality, or unaccented way of speaking, is unmarked in social imaginary, and therefore is taken as default. Speakers sharing the same accent (for example, in any class of second-language learners), would not construct hierarchy based on shared characteristic. The sorting property of any quality emerges in a group who do not share it. Among those who speak differently, some pronunciation would be marked as normal and some as deviating, accented, impaired.

The case of the British “Received Pronunciation” is unusual in this respect. It still marks the identity of the speaker, but in a favorable way. It marks her as different but belonging to a privileged class. RP is understood by everyone who lives in Britain, but “the competence to speak it” (Agha, 2007, 234, the cursive is the author’s) is a prerogative of a small powerful minority. The power of PR is evident not only in the fact that it is translated through media in Great Britain, but also that it is one of the best-studied accents.

As a marker of higher status, it is inevitably under the scrutiny of purification, of which the culmination is the doubt that the Queen herself could perform it properly, expressed rather funny in the quoted by Agha article which appeared in “The Independent” newspaper on 21 December, 2000:

“Her Majesty may not be so amused to find that a team of linguists has found her guilty of no longer speaking the Queen’s English. A group of Australian researchers analysed every Christmas message made by the Queen since 1952 and discovered that she now speaks with an intonation more Chelmsford than Windsor. . .” (226)
Agha, Asif. The Social Life of Cultural Value in “Language and Social Relations.” Cambridge University Press, 2007

Language as a System of Clichés

Becker provides us with a powerful description of language acquisition: “One learns these texts in action, by repetitions and corrections, starting with the simplest utterances of a baby. One learns to reshape these texts to new context, by imitation and by trial and error. One learns to interact with more and more people, in a greater and greater variety of environments.” (Becker, 1995, 144).

Grammar, therefore, is a set of rules not imposed on the speaker by books, but acquired as the structures of spoken, heard, and talked language.

The language is an intricately, infinitely complex system of clichés. To be understood, one has to rely on what has been already said billion times. There is a certain space for novelty but it is a regulated space.

Becker, Alton. Beyond Translation. 1995

Writer’s Change of Language: Nabokov and Others

In order to see how bilingual and multilingual writers choose language of their primal writing, I concentrate on three prominent Russia-born writers who switched to English late in life. These writers are of dramatically different fate and level of literary prominence in their second language, but all are undeniably of a great standing in the national literature. Vladimir Nabokov is the most well-known in this respect, as well as the example of the most successful linguistic transition (I propose this term to describe the change of language). Other two writers are Joseph Brodsky and Vassily Aksyonov.

My hypothesis is that all these three writers dressed Russian phrases in English attire. The structures of their English sentences are influenced by their primal language, Russian. For instance, you would not meet in Nabokov’s prose a phrase with a dangling participle. The classic in the Russian literature example of such phrase is Chekhov’s “Approaching the station and admiring the scenery, my hat blew off.” Chekhov specifically constructed this phrase in order to mock the absurd of such grammatical construction: the hat is admiring the scenery, the hat is approaching the station. The hat is the subject of the sentence. This is, arguably, an acceptable grammar form in contemporary English, albeit it has been argued that it is an example of bad writing (Pereltsvaig, 2011). In Russian the construction of this type is a rude stylistic mistake, and so there is no way Nabokov would commit it—in Russian, nor even in English. Same holds true in regard to Brodsky and Aksyonov.

I argue that for these writers the change of language was a politically motivated decision. It entailed a considerable change of identity, self-positionality, and cultural self-transmogrification.

In order to see how Nabokov’s English (not to mention his writing practices*) was influenced by T.S. Eliot, I compare the texts written on the pinnacles of the respective writing mastery of these authors, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” and “The Waste Land” on one hand, and “Pale Fire,” on the other. I show that Nabokov creatively expropriates turns of phrases “unlocked” by T.S. Eliot, somewhat contradictorily to Nabokov’s professed dislike of T.S. Eliot.


*Nabokov’s “Pale Fire” and “Eugene Onegin,”** both, as is well-known, have (or partially consist of) the ample body of commentaries, incorporated into the novel and the translation, respectively. Commentary as a cultural form, circulating widely in, probably, the majority of known literatures, has a distinct source of inspiration in Nabokov’s case, namely T.S. Eliot’s multilingual commentaries to “The Waste Land.”


** I would argue that Nabokov’s “Eugene Onegin” should be seen as a single utterance, to use this term here in Bakhtian sense (1986). Nabokov’s “Eugene Onegin” is only ostensibly a translation of the classical Russian literary masterpiece. It encloses “Eugene Onegin” like professor Shade’s poem is enclosed into the body of “Pale Fire.” The genre of Nabokov’s “Eugene Onegin” is hard to define. It is a linguistic treatise, a literary last will, and, ultimately, what he believed is his most strong claim of immortality apart from “Lolita.”




Bakhtin, Mikhail. (1986) “The Problem of Speech Genres.” In Speech Genres and Other Late Essays. Austin: University of Texas Press. 60-102.

Chekhov, Anton. “The Complaints Book” in The Comic Stories, translated by Harvey Pitcher.

Pereltsvaig, Asya. Dangling Participle: Grammatical Error Or Bad Writing Style? 12/11/2011, Retrieved 2/1/2016.

Baffling Disparity Between the Sound of the Word and its Surprising Meaning

“Stéphane Mallarmé, amazingly sensitive to the sound texture of language, observed in his essay Crise de vers that the word ombre is actually shady, but ténèbres (with its acute vowels) suggests no darkness, and he felt deeply deceived by the perverse attribution of the meanings ‘day’ to the word jour and ‘night’ to the word nuit in spite of the obscure timbre of the former and the light one of the latter.” (Jakobson, 1965, 34)
I surely did have this kind of wonder before, and articulated it.

Some Words

Some words mean just what
You would expect,
Like, onomatopoeia,
Struggle, breakthrough, dance, cooing,
Coconut, disguise, and latte.
They are transparent
In their look, sound, and the path of syllables alternating
Between stressed and unaccented
In an enduring rational succession;
On the chessboard of vowels and consonants
Former and latter
Measured in a reasonable balance.
Other words
Are just more elusive.
They seem to pretend to appear to be something
They are really not.
For instance, love*,
And dash`.
*evidently, «love» should mean «a sort of yellow stretchy marmalade,» based on the way it sounds and looks
°a screeching of the wheels on the sharp turn
^tin pipes of the old red-brick houses
`a small golden fish hiding under the green log in a gleaming round pond shadowed by a willow
How much this feeling is amplified when you study a language that is not your native, is hard to convey. When I started speaking English, it was a constant source of feeling deceived and cheated on. Clearly “itch,” “notch,” “luminosity,” and “glory” are on the right places; but what about “vanguard” (a heavy fog), “darkness” (whiskers), “agglomeration” (a gluten-free sweet of sorts) and other ridiculous things? One can imagine a text written in this manner, but for it to be read it should be supplied with an ample commentary produced by the author.

Saussurean guess of “arbitrariness” of assigning the meaning to sound is not of much help. How does this arbitrariness come to life? Who orchestrates it and how? Language is perfected by all its speakers day and night, now how can it have this vortexes of inexplicable disparity between the sound and its meaning?

Jakobson, Roman. (1965) “The Quest for the Essence of Language.” Diogenes. 13(51): 21-37.

Speech Genres: Individual vs Social

I think Bakhtin [intentionally, for his own purposes] misreads Saussure when he says: “Therefore, the single utterance, with all its individuality and creativity, can in no way be regarded as a completely free combination of forms of language, as is supposed, for example, by Saussure (and by many other linguists after him), who juxtaposed the utterance (la parole), as a purely individual act, to the system of language as a phenomenon that is purely social and mandatory for the individual.” (Bakhtin, 1986, 81; cursive is author’s).



Bakhtin, Mikhail. (1986) “The Problem of Speech Genres.” In Speech Genres and Other Late Essays. Austin: University of Texas Press. 60-102.

Another Page from “Convoluted Travelogue”

Collecting episodes, bits, and other peculiar miscellanea, which belong to the project now called “Vicissitudes of Using English (…) in the Experience of a Non-Native Speaker”



Few things are weirder than the spelling of the word “weird.”





Untranslatable Words: Dosada

Untranslatable Russian word, dosada. It’s subdued anger. One of the shades of anger anyway. Hard to describe. Annoyance. Annoyed anger maybe. Also the cause of such anger.




Language: Numbers

Numbers look so seraphically Cyrillic. They gaze at you with their big Cyrillic eyes out of the Latin-lettered hot mess of a text.



Queen’s English

Linguists in their natural habitat

A:   Why does the Queen say “we“ about herself? How is that correct in the modern English?

B:   I don’t know but she is the English Queen and therefore what she speaks is English.


City as Language

The city and the language we speak are both the products of human activity preceding us. By the time we are born, they are already there. Saussure pointed out that despite the ultimate arbitrariness with which a sequence of sounds starts to denote an object, once the word is assigned to its meaning, or a meaning to a word, the use of it far from being arbitrary (Saussure, 1998). Voloshinov adds that the multiplicity of the word’s meanings is such that it is equal to the multiplicity of the contexts in which the word is used (Voloshinov, 1973). The meaning of the word is, therefore, engendered by the context. The word is still a word, it retains its unity, its singularity, because the variety of its meanings fall into some area, but there are no two contexts where the word’s meaning is quite the same.

Likewise, applying this logic of thought to the city, one can suggest that it might be more or less of an occasion that the street laid in one direction, but once it is there, its functioning is no longer random, the street is liable to the certain logic of its development and use, it offers the type of activities, gestural patterns, paths, entertainment, business, speed of walking, et cetera. The environment shapes our experience in an endless multiplicity of ways.

City is a text written in an architectural language, and it is readable and decipherable, can be edited and re-written.

American cities have their own peculiar logic of development. In the younger cities, where there is no historical neighborhood built by the pattern of medieval European cities with their narrow streets, accurate churches and houses, the streets often cross one another at the ninety degree angles, forming the net of sorts. There is has some futuristic functionality in this principal reduction of the entangled streets of the European city as we know it, which was built with a different idea behind it. The architects ruthlessly invade the space with the embodiment of their fancies, phantasms, and fantasies, but in the old times they had to convince the sovereign in the sustainability of their ideas.

Visual sociologist Luc Pauwels suggests: “The city can be looked upon as a huge, out of control syntagma—a combination of numerous paradigmatic choices made by many semi-independent actors, with different, often conflicting interests. Some signs have lost their meaning but remain to send their obsolete message (to buy a no longer existing product of an out of market manufacturer). These remnants of the past together with the uncontrolled combination of numerous signs that are competing for attention create a visual data overload and ‘noise’ that may prove highly confusing, while at the same time they may become a source of entertainment for the attentive observer.”

Finally, a city which is ruining because of decline and subsequent gradual abandonment is like the language going out of use.




Pauwels, Luc. 2012. “Street Discourse: A Visual Essay on Urban Signification” (6.1), an essay in his essay “Conceptualising the ‘Visual Essay’ as a Way of Generating and Imparting Sociological Insight: Issues, Formats and Realisations,” Sociological Research Online, 17 (1) 1, [retrieved 1/11/2016]

Saussure, Ferdinand de. 1998. Course of General Linguistics. Reprint Edition; Open Court Classics

Voloshinov, V.N. 1973. Marxism and the Philosophy of Language. Seminar Press, in liaison with the Harvard Univerity Press and the Academic Press Inc.

Convoluted Travelogue

The Vicissitudes of Using English for the Purposes of Academic and Creative Writing in the Experience of a Non-Native Speaker

Change of Language: Convoluted Travelogue


I am grateful to Olga Breininger for prompting me to develop these segmentary notes, which I have been writing for more than three years, into the segmentary notes you now see. She did it when, answering my question whether she wrote prose in English, shared with me a suggestion and a question: “Academic texts are easier to write in English than prose—I have a feeling that I have not yet fully mastered intonation, lack plasticity, rhythmicity. How did you move towards the work in two languages?”

Olga is a native Russian speaker, and so am I. The sentiments she described were not unfamiliar to me. “Convoluted travelogue” maps my (unfinished) journey from being a monolingual author to being a bilingual author. I am one of those English learners for whom English was never a language of instruction, until I got into the American academia, to be more specific, into a PhD program. The struggle that many of those whose trajectories go along the same route my journey went, is often hidden. Nevertheless, it is there.

Not that I did not have some training in English over the course of my life. I diligently studied English in school and in college. My instructors, whose passion and love to the language I would always remember gratefully, were not the native speakers, but they loved their profession. It surprised me greatly, when I landed in Heathrow airport, that I could barely understand speech floating around me.

I consider myself a late-in-life English learner, as I started seriously studying, speaking, writing, extensively reading and communicating in the language past my thirties.

These notes were written in both languages simultaneously, as they appear here. I had the intention to, eventually, translate Russian pieces into English, and/or vice versa, but I came to accept this project as is, by now. I am aware that my decision diminishes the circle of potential readership of the project drastically, but I am willing to give it a try. It is mainly for those who go through a similar struggle: native Russian speakers in American academia and writing-related fields.

As for the genre of this text, this is a diary, and this is not; this is a series of reflections, and this is not quite a series of reflections; let us call it a travelogue of a risky inner expedition.