Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Indian accents and flawless speech

“You don’t speak with a typical Indian accent.”

“I don’t?” (What did you expect? Apu from the Simpsons?)

“Were you educated in India? Did you go to a special school or something?

I swear I’m descended from a thousand generations of Indians, and I was born and brought up in India. No, I did not go to a “special school”, just a normal high school (though it did have too many rich kids in it, who perhaps needed some help).

These are real conversations I’ve had with people here in the States. They gasp when they discover that I say “Thank you VEry much for the WAter.” I’ve been really hard pressed to convince them that India is a large and diverse land, and there isn’t one single “Indian accent.” Each region has its own distinct, captivating and always amusing accent. Just like America has a Southern, South Western, West Coast, Mid West, Hispanic, East Coast, Boston, New England or other accents, we have our own Punj, Tam, Mallu, Telugu, Kannadiga, Marathi, UPite, Bihari, Bengali, North Eastern, Gujju or any other variation of English.

The poor hapless Bengali has to grapple with the fact that B, V and W are three distinct and independent sounds, and not just one. The woeful Mallu’s fate has been wonderfully captured here. My grandfather, an erudite TamBrahm if there ever was one (I just wanted to use the word erudite before I died, no hidden agenda here), dictated his letters to me when his eyesight was failing. He spoke in the Queen’s English, albeit better than any queen of England could have, and tormented me (at the ripe young age of twelve) with words like “claustrophobia” and “sovereign” which I tried to split and spell, and failed miserably. He was particular with YEvery word and knew YEvery thing from Yay to Yezed. WOnly WOnce did I manage a flawless copy. On a score of Sero to ten, my spelling abilities still remain close to Sero.

There are the distinct accents that separate a Mumbaiya from a Bangalorean, and a Delhiite from a proud citizen of Chennai. My wife left the north years ago, yet her (flawless) English still reveals her proud UP upbringing. Then there is the oft quoted joke about the Gujju family who called some friends over for tea, and terrorized them by declaring that the “Snakes were in the hole” (Snacks were in the hall. Sic.)

There are also shared Indianisms, such as not being clear with the v’s and w’s, forced American accents, and a tendency to stress on the second syllable of words (not very common in English), a trend typical in most Indic languages. So attempts to say can’t with an American accent fail miserably, and diarrhea (dI-&-'rE-&) becomes di-yea-‘rE, or just die-reaa. Easier to stick to the old fashioned “runs.”

But I can with certainty tell people that we are not all like Apu, and yes, we each speak English our own way. And we are proud of it.


Post script: Men and the art of Hara-Kiri

(I removed this postscript)


Soultan of Swing said...

Sunil finally uses the word ERUDITE...:)!

Suhail said...

Indianisms ??

Now, that's a new ism I've come across. As for your brownie points; reminds me of a famous quote:
"Don't learn the tricks of the trade. Learn the trade."

My sympathies !! Poor you. But congrats nevertheless on using that word ERUDITE. That should make your day :-)

Anonymous said...

a special school? isn't there where they send the mentally disadvantaged (I mean no offence here, I just don't know the latest pol correct term) - but I know exactly what you are talking about - a classmate of mine in London asked me if I took classes in English before I went to London - and this was at the LSE!

Michael Higgins said...

Hi Sunil
My wife has no descernable accent and people always ask here if she was born in the U.S.. Her father is a very nice gentlemen, but I really have to pay attention to understand what he is saying.

Sunil said...

Charu...that's exactly what i thought of when I heard "special school"! But I didn't wan't to sound insensitive on my blog. Michael, that's exactly true! Somehow, I speak with a largely neutral accent, while my grandfather spoke beautiful english with this thick accent!

Anonymous said...

A scene from real life.

Place: One of those K-Mart type places in the suburbs of Dallas about 12 -15 years ago (boy, that makes me feel old!).

An Indian helps a couple of elderly ladies to find something they were looking for, and some small talk ensues. At the end ot it all, the Indian hears one of the ladies say "Why, you speak such good English!", and he replies with "Thank you, ma'am, so do you!".

R.Nandakumar said...

Interesting to note that the Gujju too can make the 'hole-hall' goof => the Mallu is not all that alone in his corner of the world. I am also informed that some folks from Western UP have been heard consistenly saying 'jobe' for 'job' and so on.

Talking of accents, I often totally fail to pick the intricacies of Hollywood movies because the accent is unfamiliar. The 'worst' among the lot used to be Bruce Willis. Giving him solid competition these days is a fellow-Mallu called M. Night Shayamalan (pronounced 'Sham-a-lawn' they say). Appropriately enough (?), I read an American reviewer state something like "although he was born in India, he speaks flawless English, free from accent"!

Sunil said...

Interesting, I thought M. "Night" was a fellow Tam.....being from Pondicherry and all that....
Perhaps I was wrong :-))
The absurdity of the whole thing is sometimes ridiculous......if a person was brought up in the states, it would obviously be hard to pick up an "Indian" accent. Yet the stereotyping continues!

Rhyncus said...

Ah, so now the 'right' accent is the American one? I'm sure in the 19th century, the British accent was the one sought to be emulated. And which one of the variety of American ones? The Southern (American) drawl (Billy Bob Thornton does that in a few movies) is the toughest to my ear. And the Nigerian one was pretty incomprehensible for the first few weeks. English is a (the?) world language today and will be spoken in as many accents as people. I remember once asking a Swede how she spoke such 'flawless' English and funnily she expressed surprise at my 'flawlessness' too. Both of us, it turned out, had learnt English in school. So there.
Neutral accent is fine. But I guess the crux of the issue here is familiarity. The more familiar your language and accent is to your neighbours, the more at ease they will be.

Anonymous said...

Hi Sunil,
i don't know if you would ever get to read this. I have never experimented with internet so much. mmmmm.... let me tell you 'bout myself i am a voice & accent trainer & it was a pleasure going through your article.,,,, Coz pleople now a days have probably forgotten the importance of Humour and hey it's just language.... learn to enjoy a bit with it. Loved your article.... i might use it in my training sometime.

Anonymous said...

Hey Sunil,
Being another TB (!), I can definitely relate to your experiences. Folks at work here in the US compliment me on my English as well and also observe that it’s not the case with few other Indians.
Apparently someone asked a co-worker (who happens to be a Bong) as to why there are different accents and English standards among Indians and he sent out this foolish one page long mail putting down the South Indians' English and education standard!!! He seemed to have forgotten that he himself says Viskey, Wictor, Ewery andd leadd,... and then there is his Tressure!
It’s different when non-Indians comment on our language skills and that’s something that I take on with ease, but I don’t find it funny when some ‘North/West/East’-ern Indians make prejudiced and absurd remarks about 'Madrasis' even while living in the US. :(
I wish these folks would someday realize that they are letting their own country and country(wo)men down in the world arena.
- Ash