Questions of Accent

Murat Nemet-Nejat
Articles & Essays
Questions of Accent

I. Personal Accents

I speak no language like a native. Though I have lived in the States since 1959, my accent still sounds foreign. I was born in Turkey, but I am not Turkish. I am Jewish. In the fifties most Jews in Turkey were Sephardim and spoke Ladino Spanish. But I am not  a Sephardi; I am a Persian Jew. My parents had moved to Istanbul on business, and I was born there in a Jewish neighborhood. But I learnt no Ladino, barely understood it. Jewish kids in the neighborhood thought I was Moslem, an outsider. At home, my parents spoke Persian with each other, which also I barely understood. Brothers among ourselves spoke Turkish. My mother spoke in an immigrant’s broken Turkish to me (my father barely spoke to me at all). Turkish became my mother tongue. I spoke Turkish in the street. I was, linguistically, most comfortable with other Turks, who mostly despised Jews. My speech became almost Turkish. Loving a language not completely my own was my first act as a Jew. And, despite my almost accentless speech, my first act of rebellion was to tell my Turkish friends I was not one of them. I was a Jew.

II. Explorations Towards a Writer’s Block

In 1959 I left the hurly-burly of Turkey, its rich vein of bigotry and psychic resonance behind. Though I did not focus on it then, I left my mother tongue behind, which is Turkish, which I am not. In 1961 I decided to become a writer. As an American writer my first act was self-immolation. I had to destroy the Turkishness in me, feel, hopefully one day, dream in English. If I had a thought in Turkish, I aborted, nicked it. I chose not have a thought exist unless originating in English, a language which overwhelmed me because I had said my first words in it only six years before. The result was a writer’s block which lasted about ten years during which I wrote three or four poems a year all under ten lines. My first breakthrough occurred with The Bridge, a long narrative poem which took me five years to write (1970 – 1975).

III. Thought, Speech and Acts

Now, as a thinking adult in English, I speak it with an accent. I speak Turkish also with an accent. Turkish is an unaccented, flat language, with vowels of equal length. The accentual rhythms of English interfere with my Turkish. When I speak, Turks think I am a Cypriot or Armenian, an outsider. I must spend weeks in Turkey, speaking no English, for my accent in Turkish almost to disappear. My business is antique Oriental rugs, which is dominated by Persian Jews. My Persian has improved incredibly. I can speak the daily business lingo, its bargainings, lies, theatrics, jokes (at which I am very good), without effort; but I am illiterate in Persian. Occasionally, one of the merchants, knowing I am also a poet, recites a Sadi or a Hafiz poem, which is completely incomprehensible (and slightly repulsive) to me.

1. AM-erica

I find the first two letters of “America” infinitely stirring. It means “pussy” in Turkish and “I am” in English. It resonates with a tension between motherhood/sex (“Am” is also “mA” in reverse) and identity. As I write down these thoughts, I notice suddenly that “Am” distorts the natural syllable break of the word. It accents “A-merica.” Not only do I speak English, but also, mentally, in my mind’s eye, hear it with an accent. The true power, even nature, of American English for me is accented, buried in this accent: “Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard….”

The true power of language, its well of inspiration, for me, lie in its conscious or unconscious errors, cracks, imperfections. I am a poet, an American poet, because I have a defective ear. And, first lesson: this defect is the source of my possible talents and their limitations. But why not a poet in French or Turkish or Persian, all languages I knew before English?

2. Jewishness and Accent

Last year I attended a workshop on being a Jewish writer, run by Joel Lewis. In his meticulous way, Joel presented the participants with a range of alternatives, poems containing chicken soup and Matzo balls (gemutlich), tailors and the Shtetl (Isaac Bashevis Singer and “Fiddler On The Roof”), Lewis Warsh’s wonderful poem about the movement from the Lower East Side to the Grand Concourse in the Bronx, pre-war European poems in translation about the conflict between the Yiddish and goyish cultures, and translations of haunting Holocaust poems by Primo Levi. I am not an Ashkenazi Jew. Though I share the underlying paranoia of the outsider of every Jew, Turkey was never invaded by the Nazi’s. I never ate matzo balls at home. In strictly European or main-stream American terms defined by the workshop, there is little Jewish in my writing. Am I not Jewish then? A nonsensical question since I am Jewish. In that workshop once again I felt, as I felt among Jewish kids in Istanbul, an outsider who spoke not the same language.

Then, how am I a Jewish writer, how is writing poetry in American English my version of Jewish writing?


Murat Nemet-Nejat


“Questions of Accent” was first published in the poetry journal The Exquisite Corpse in 1993 and then was included in a collections of writings from The Exquisite Corpse in a book entitled Thus Spoke the Corpse by Black Sparrow Press in 1999.

The Bengali translation of this text is available on the following link.

স্বরভঙ্গির কাব্যতত্ত্ব ও মুরাত নেমেত-নেযাত

Murat Nemet-Nejat. Poet, Essayist and Translator. Murat Nemet-Nejat was born in Istanbul, Turkey, and lived in the United States since 1959. He studied literature at Amherst College and Columbia University in the United States. He is the author of several...

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