“Th” inquiry or the burden of national identity

If you are a non-native speaker of English you probably had problems with that pesky “th” sound, which is produced by sticking out your tongue in totally strange and awkward way. Despite spending many years in the English-speaking environment, I could never master it, and still often say “ze” instead of “the” which immediately reveals my Slavic origins to any listener. Interestingly, it never really been a problem with native speakers who usually compliment my English and my accent, calling it “interesting and sexy”, but the only person who pointed it out as something awful, shameful and “needed to be dealt with” was…. another Russian.

Strangely and quite unexpectedly it somewhat ticked me emotionally. Knowing very well that out of proportion response to small things is always an indicator of deep-seated, often subconscious self-image thought patterns, I started inquiring. Why the simple act of mispronouncing “th” sounds was deemed “wrong” and “shameful” by another Russian and, on some level, shared by my mind as it reacted emotionally instead of just shrugging it off?

And the answer was simple. Many Russians (especially those who had the chance to see the other parts of the world and compare) are so ashamed of being Russian so they try hard not to sound Russian as if the horrid “ze” immediately indicate our belonging to that messed up world of Stalin, Putin and vodka, as if we somewhat responsible for all the misdeeds and horrors that ever happened on that particular piece of land. There is this strange pervasive national shame, seating so deep in our psyche, dragging itself through generations and finding very twisted and grotesque expression in blown out of proportion “Russian patriotism”.

Often, when people are screaming loudly about something, they are trying to cover something up, like a bully is covering up his inner insecurities. Same is with Russian culture, under the patriotic bravado there is this strange unconscious shame… and I suddenly realized that I am still carrying it as well.

But why? How is being Russian more shameful than being American, Indian or Chinese? Every country has its share of darkness somewhere back in history. This strange phenomenon is probably particularly pronounced in the Russian culture, but certainly not unique to it. But what is “culture”, really? What is “history”? When you look closely to the nature of these familiar abstractions, they just dissipate into a collection of collectively carried beliefs and habits… But do we really have to carry that invisible and yet very heavy baggage of “national identity”?

The accent is simply an effect of a tongue and palate being formed in a certain way through adapting to the sounds of a certain language in our formative years, it is not a symbol of Hitler’s atrocities or Putin’s regime. We make associations and then carry them like a banner, just by habit, just because it has been done before us, just because we do not question.

French people sound French, Germans sound German, Chinese have their own peculiarities, and the English language is just … the language, the tool for communication, exchange of information. We need to speak and understand it just well enough to convey the information. Any identity we try to mix into it is totally made-up by our minds. We don’t need to sound like Americans or British and certainly don’t need to disguise our origins.

My “ze” will probably never become a proper British “the”, and no-one will take me for the born Australian, but really, does it matter? Once all the vested symbolism been understood and cleared from the mind, we are free to be not just a Russian, Australian, or a Japanese, we are free to be something more, free to explore and inhabit the whole world and beyond… And an accent is just a convenient point of starting a conversation and getting to know each other.

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