Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Fair and Lovely Accents

I've been wondering recently about accents. It's interesting to note that when we move to a place with a perceived cool accent (the U.K, even the U.S. and Australia) that accent is quickly incorporated.

Hey, I'm just wondering. Not that I've consciously inculcated (at least I don't think I have) it but I have a totally American accent (well the mid-western, less-accented version) myself so it's not like I am picking on others.

I know people who've moved to London and suddenly they sound like a Brit. But, on the other hand, I know others who've moved to Thailand or Kenya or Japan or Malaysia and they don't have the accent of the English-speakers of that country.


I guess, in India, someone moving from a small town to Bombay or Delhi takes on that accent. Again, because it's cooler. It gets you more. Impresses people. Perhaps even impresses you, huh?

But then it's not really unconscious, is it? I remember when I was in university (many, many moons ago) in Allahabad. This girl went off to be seen or meet or whatever it's called, her husband-to-be who lived in the U.S.. She spent a few hours with him getting to know him (how do you do that?).

Anyway, she came back to class with a weird American accent. When someone asked her she retorted, "Well, if you spend time with someone it automatically has an effect. It just happens."

I wonder if her fiance went back to the U.S. with an Indian, Allahabadi accent. Probably not.

But what's at the root of this phenomenon? Is there something else, something beyond the it just happened/it's natural/it just is excuses. Is it just that we pick up something from where live? But, if it's that why is our unconscious selection so discriminating? Why an American accent but not a Mexican one?

We choose to take on accents from those whom we perceive as being somewhat superior (interestingly few moving to the UK start talking with a cockney accent, or with a Texas twang in the U.S.), better than us.

And we might spend years in a country with other English speakers, even if they are not the majority (as in India) and never seem to pick up that less "desirable" accent.

What makes a British accent sexy and proper? What makes us go weak in the knees when we hear an Australian drawl? What makes the way we pronounce our words, where we place emphases, how we break them up so fraught with shades of superiority/inferiority, and dare I say it--- racism? Is there some subtle racism at work here? Something subterranean, lurking under the surface?

Are accents the fair and lovely creams of the language world? Do we smear them on to escape the duskiness that is just a thin surface away?

There is nothing inherently sexy or proper or cool about any of this. We buy into the Western superiority argument. Is there really an argument? We just do it...without thinking what that says about the world we live in, about us and about those we choose to emulate and more importantly, and more importantly, those we choose not to emulate.


anjali said...

i agree with your pov in general but i do know quite a few firangs who have lived in these 'non-superior' countries and have adopted that accent. i have an american friend who lived in bombay for 3 years and uses the 'no?' (like, the price is too high, no?) at the end of almost every sentence. comes quite naturally to him.

i think it just takes a little while i.e. while your friend might pick up an american accent after talking to an american for just 2 hours, an american probably needs to live in india for a few years before picking up an indian accent.

Rohan Venkat said...

It's a somewhat studied phenomenon in Britain allowing a certain mobility in your accent, where you tend to to copy those of a 'higher' class in your conversations with them, while you retreat further into your own accent if you're speaking to a perceived 'lower' class.

The same sort of thing happens with Indians, especially thanks to the fact that Indian English isn't a defined accent (the regional varieties within one city itself are staggering) so we tend to find it easy to migrate to another accent. I do take issue with your saying that once you go back, you retain your accent.

For example, I'm an Indian student studying in the States (with both and Indian and British educational past), I find myself sticking to my accent as much as possible, and switching to a british pronunciation if I'm not understood. Yet when i go back home, in conversations with other indians, I eventually revert back to my local accent.

It's a question of conformity to a large extent (though the 'coolness' of certain people does, consciously or subconsciously make a difference)

It would be an interesting study though, why Indian English in particular is such a malleable thing.

Jawahara Saidullah said...


Thanks for the comments. Anjali, I would distinguish between someone adopting a word usage from another culture versus an accent, which is the way words are pronounced, where emphases are placed, etc. But I get your point. Also, thankfully the person in question was not a friend *shudders* and not just because of the accent weirdness.

And Rohan, great comments and yes, the malleability of the Indian accent would make a great study. Ah, if only I was still in academia.

Blogistani said...

I've heard Americans speak with an accent influenced by India or Pakistan, if not totally changed. They pronounce their words more softly and with different intonation. But accent is a very changeable thing. And we desis aren't the only ones affected by the issue. Look at Madonna!

Oh, and I'm totally guilty of making fun of sharp Indian/Pakistani accents. But then I endure some pretty merciless teasing for my own, which is pure East Coast.

Sujatha said...

Jawahara, great post! My son developed an Indian accent in the three years we spent in India, but whenever we met up with an American family he would revert to his American accent without trouble. Without the hangups that we adults labor under, it is easy to see, that in his case, it was a matter of being like the people around him. A few months before we left to return to the US, a couple of boys came from London to visit their grandparents. They took an instant liking to my son and he to them, and for days he talked with a British accent. He was surprised and very embarrased when we pointed it out to him.

I would venture to say that some of what we adults do is unconscious as well. It's been more than a decade and a half since I left India the first time and I don't have a trace of an American accent. When I auditioned to get on AIR in Bangalore, they were surprised when I told them that I'd just returned to India after a long stay abroad. On the other hand, put my husband in a room with a guy with an Irish accent and he'll come out sounding Irish after a couple of hours and I don't think he does it on purpose.

So, lots of factors at play here, but I do agree that some of it has to do with our notions of what characteristics are more desirable.

Sorry for the rambling comment. :)

dipali said...

The Fair and Lovely accents of the world! Lovely concept. I guess that it does have a sub-consciously perceived hierarchy

Judy Bussey said...

See. Your Master's work regarding the perception of standard vs nonstandard speech is showing--and you thought it was useless. it's a universal trend to try to speak the language of power no matter where you are.

Maybe someday, my appalachian accent will be copied by people everywhere.

I believe there is no right or wrong way to speak, but the language of the powerful in any culture is the most acceptable choice for breaking down any barriers that may exist in one's effort to break down barriers.

Oh well. bottomline. Your Master's degree is at work and doing well.