The idle ramblings of a Jack of some trades, Master of none

Mar 27, 2008


PPD has a post describing why and how he strove to obtain an Americanised accent during his stint in the US. This being an emotive subject on par with religion, cricket and M&Ms, his post elicited comments galore, ranging from accusations of insecurity to a suggestion that he craved fitting in. He then rebutted said comments by pointing out that he prefers to speak in the natural accent of the native speakers of any language, and that just as it would not make sense to lose a French accent acquired while learning French in France (or a Marathi accent as picked up in Pune), it doesn't make sense to lose the American accent when one returns to India.

One thing the commenters didn't point out is that many people modulate their voices in response to what they hear. For instance, if your interlocutor speaks loudly or slowly, so do you - generally. By a similar process of osmosis and feedback, a new accent manifests itself. This switches off (or mutates into another accent) when one is in the company of a different set of speakers.

The wife likes to call this a 'public voice': what one gets when one speaks to non-Indians: one starts speaking more deliberately, with heightened gestures, and one talks slower than usual. In my case, it's more mixed. My friends used to tease me, saying that I went to America and picked up a British accent. Leaving aside the null concept of a 'British' accent, or even an 'American' one, this aspersion is not entirely correct. My accent is a total mishmash. Having grown up in various parts of the world, I've acquired pieces of various accents. So, for instance, I roll the 'r' in the American way when I say 'hardly', but I also say 'nevuh' for 'never'. And I suffer from the feedback effect I mentioned above. It was particularly painful when in Malaysia I started saying stuff like S'okay-lah.

In this, I am in excellent company. Richard Feynman, who grew up in New York City, had the typical accent of a Brooklyn Jew. But it was pointed out that as he drove across the country, he would gradually acquire a more Southern intonation that became a full-blown drawl in Texas, a loosening when he approached California, and then - occasionally, in his old age - a surfer dude intonation when in LA.

It's not just Indians who lose and gain accents when they go abroad. Madonna acquired a clipped mode of speech when she arrived in England, to much general hilarity in these parts. When it suits her, she relapses into her native speech. Likewise, Charlize Theron switched off her South African accent completely when she moved to the US. These days, she speaks almost exclusively in her new-found mode.

Accents can be quickly acquired for the purposes of a film, say. There is an entire industry of coaches who try to educate the actor on the nuances of a given accent. That this is a very difficult skill to master is proved by the fact that even famous mimics such as Peter Sellers and Mike Myers fall flat in the ears of the native speakers whose accents they imitated. Take a look at this (from Slate):
To be sure, it's not easy to make a good Boston movie. Rather than dwell on the particular offenses of, say, With Honors, Celtic Pride, or the peerless Soul Man, let's cut to the root problem: It's the accent. Even for our finest actors, the Boston accent is Everest: an irresistible, but insurmountable, challenge. Some especially foolhardy pros even adopt Boston accents in movies that aren't set in Boston. What was Tom Hanks thinking in Catch Me if You Can? Time to prove the acting chops, that's what he was thinking. Eat your heart out, Rain Man. I can do a Boston accent.
But accents can always be made fun of. The Slate article continues:
But he couldn't. For all the long as and dropped rs, you could hear the physical strain in the line readings, like they were being squeezed from an empty tube of toothpaste. This may seem like a minor matter to you. But for those of us who grew up possessing, or shedding, a Boston accent, it's a deal breaker. Consider, if you will, the embarrassing hilarity that tends to ensue when my dear father, unapologetic owner of a medium-thick Boston brogue, returns an off bottle of wine at a restaurant because "I know the taste of cork. And this tastes like cork."
It is a measure of otherness in otherwise homogeneous societies. Why else would Americans make fun of the speech of Alabama, or the English wince at the broad Midlands mode, and scoff at the haw-haw of the upper-class toffs? When everybody looks like you and thinks more or less like you, one measure of difference is your accent. So if my little boy were to spend a few days in an Indian school, he'd probably be mercilessly teased about his London accent. No doubt, he'd try very hard lose it in no time.

It is true, though, that many desis who go to the US acquire the American accent only partially, and it is rather grating on the ears to listen to them speak it in desi company. A sort of na ghar ka, na ghat ka situation. A bit more irritating is the ability of some people to put on an accent for show. Mimicry I could forgive, but showing off? Nev-uh.

On the other hand, it could have been much worse. There are some folks out there like one of my friends, of whom it was said, "His neighbours were studying for the GRE and Shiva picked up an American accent."


Shefaly said...

Feanor: This is a great and hilarious post! :-)

I think people's propensities vary when it comes to acquiring accents, vocabulary and lingo.

A very close friend of mine was at MIT for 4 years and picked up no accent. Now she teaches in Canada, and no accent - yet. On the other hand, we had a professor who flew over California - ok, attended Uni of SoCal - and acquired an awful, high pitched, nasal, rolling-Rs, just godawful accent that he thought was SoCal. So not more like!

I resisted picking up campus slang during both my educational stints - one right in my teens and one as a mature student. I cringe when I see people revert to b-school campus slang after nearly 15 years. I understand it but I do not have to use it.

Likewise with accent. South Indian friends make fun of my Hindi accent and vocabulary saying 'samachar mat padh, baat kar' (don't read news, talk). I have, despite my desire to pick it up, not picked up the clipped British accent which I love hearing and which most of my clients have.

I also do not have a public voice - what I do have is a continuing process to eliminate bad usage, shoddy vocabulary and mispronunciations. Things such as 'prepone', mispronunciations such as 'a-cad-emic' (Indians almost all pronounce the word with an accent on the second syllable) and things like split infinitives.

I guess with practice, I have made myself 'resistant' to many influences except the desirable ones. :-)

Fëanor said...

Shefaly: Thank you for the feedback. I must say I've always enjoyed slang. In high school we created one of our own which became wildly popular even among our juniors, and it's a bit of nostalgia to use it once in a while when I meet my old classmates. Nobody else understands it so that's fine as well. As for 'mis'-pronunciation of words, it's hard (for me, at least) to be a purist about these things. Linguistic drift happens all the time. I think you'll find that Indian English with its idioms, intonations and pronunciations will one day become as valid an English as Aussie or American. Just a matter of time, heh.

Usages such as prepone are actually quite clever, and not that different from the explosion of Latin-origin words that populated the English language in the 18th century (many of which were derided by influential people of the time, and yet survived!). And split infinitives have always been grammatically correct in English! (See the excellent Language Log, e.g. here and you'll see what I mean.) Won't Captain Kirk's To boldly go where no man has gone before lose so much of its impact if the split-infinitive rule were followed? :-)

Post a Comment