Speaking In Accents – II

In response to my post yesterday, a Facebook friend offered the following perspicuous comments:

I have no control over my accent and it breaks my heart when my dialect goes missing – and faking it/forcing it is difficult and problematic to boot. I just want so badly to rub my accent in the face of every stereotype of the illiterate drunken welfare bum, but code switching happens even when I don’t want it to. So often dialect becomes kind of trivialized, but really, in my experience, it’s at the core of cultural identity.

[T]he final point in the blog post about [Samir’s] unconscious ability as a linguistic sponge contrasted with the observation that Americans rarely pick up Indian accent features even if surrounded by them is SO IMPORTANT. Power and perception of prestige is such a huge dimension guiding whether accents are abandoned, modified, or clung to….in my own life, I’ve observed how so many Newfoundlanders move away and lose their accents – learn to speak ‘correctly,’ ugh – but I can’t think of examples of Canadians who move to Newfoundland and pick up the local way of speaking in a significant way. [links added]

Accents can be (are?) markers of privilege and power. The immigrant loses his accent, but not all kinds of immigrants; it depends on who is immigrating, and where.

Accents and assimilation go together; those that seek to assimilate, often seek to lose their accents; those that don’t want to, or don’t need to, do not. There is little you can do about skin color or physical appearance, but perhaps there is a great deal that can be done about the way you sound. (Witness the popularity of ‘accent removal classes‘ in the US, for instance.) And such linguistic assimilation can be crucially important.

A reminder of an accent, especially in mixed company, is a galling business. Even if you aren’t seeking assimilation consciously, it can be a simple reminder of difference, of outside status. These reminders can vary: sometimes its the request to speak slower, to repeat oneself; sometimes its the insensitive impromptu mimicry; sometimes its the well-meant but often awkward, “I love it when you pronounce X like that”; sometimes its the simple query, “What kind of accent is that?” The accented speaker feels the spotlight turn on him; he had thought he had sneaked in, but his papers have been asked for, and they’ve been found wanting. His cover is blown.

More problematically, an accent can simply disguise your content with its form; you might be making eminent sense, but the overlaying accent invokes a prejudice that clouds comprehension. In some kinds of conversation, some kinds of accents don’t work. It’s easier to talk about cricket in an Indian accent than it is about baseball or football; I’m supposed to be talking about, and dispensing wisdom on, the former, but not about the latter. I will not be heard in the latter case.

All accents are not equal, of course. In my twenty-seven years in the US, I’ve never seen an Italian or French friend told their accented English was difficult to understand, or asked to repeat themselves, or had it mimicked to their face. Their listeners strain to understand them; these accents are markers of sophisticated European cultures, signals of sophistication. On a related note, I’ve never heard complaints about Italian or French speakers talking to each other in their home languages in mixed company, a grouse all too often directed at other more ‘insular’ folk from lands a little further east.

I’ll never lose my accent; I wouldn’t know how even as it occasionally synchronizes with the speech of those around me. My daughter will realize, soon enough, her father sounds different from most around her. Hopefully, she won’t be too confused or mortified by the difference between her Brooklyn accent and my mutt one.

Speaking In Accents – I

Like every human on this planet, I speak with an accent. In my case, I speak English with a curious, hybrid, mongrelized accent – Indian, but bearing the impress of twenty-seven years on the US East Coast. It is distinct and unmistakable–no American will ever think I have grown up in the US. It is clear I’m from ‘elsewhere.’ (I mix up my Ws and Vs, I do not always pronounce vowels in the clipped style so distinctive of American English, and of course, I sometimes emphasize syllables in my own idiosyncratic way.) Sometimes, when I travel, Europeans–and others too–think I have an American accent, but Americans know it is not. Interestingly, because the Indian accent has some intonation patterns similar to that of the Irish, Scottish and Welsh accents, I’ve sometimes been asked–only in the US, not elsewhere–why I’m speaking in a brogue.  (In the opening scenes of Twin Town, the Lewis brothers, from Swansea, Wales, are shown talking to their mother–I think–in hospital; their conversation is only partially audible. I could have sworn I was listening to Indians.) And of course, because I speak English with an accent, it is a common enough suggestion that English is not my ‘first language’, that rather it is my ‘second language.’ But as I noted here a while ago, English is my first language in every relevant dimension.

When I speak to Indians, whether here in the US or in India, as the conversation proceeds, the Indian roots of my English become ever more prominent till, finally, it seems to me I’m speaking English the way I used to when I lived in India. As my brother said to me when I first traveled back to India after spending nearly three years in the US, “You were speaking funny when you got off the plane but by the time we got home, you’d become normal again.”

Once, I was accused of feigning an accent–a particularly damning accusation of insincerity and inauthenticity as far as my interlocutor was concerned. I was the archetypal post-colonial, trying to sneak into the club. But for me, the only partial Americanization of my accent has been a subtle process; I have not been conscious of it being molded and shaped as I spoke English in the US. Instead, it has seemed to me that as I have participated in conversations, my spoken English has, in a kind of sympathetic dance, aligned itself with that of the speaker.  A related observation was made by my wife who pointed out that when I conversed with a good French friend of mine, I seemed  to start throwing around Gallic shrugs by the dozen. And then, lastly, when I lived in Australia, I did pick up, quite quickly, many distinct Australianisms.

No American, of course, has had his spoken English acquire an Indian accent by talking to me, so perhaps the original accusation did have some weight. Perhaps there is a bit of Zelig in me–in the linguistic dimension. More on this anon.