Josna Rege

123. That Funny Accent

In 1960s, 1970s, 1990s, Britain, Greece, Immigration, India, Inter/Transnational, Stories, United States on October 1, 2011 at 1:43 pm

Peter Sellers in The Party (from bootlegtunzworld-org)

Accents are funny things. Unless a person is continually made aware of the fact that she has one, the thought might never occur to her. Accents change or are perceived differently depending on who’s listening. All accents are not equal: some carry social capital while others are targets of derision, so that people assume or cultivate the former while downplaying or destroying the latter. And as with skin color, so with accents: a dominant one does not recognize itself as such; it is only Others, those who speak differently, who are considered to have them.

As a child in Kharagpur, I was expected by my parents, each for his or her different reasons, to speak the Queen’s English, and I did—at least, when I was with them. But with my friends I automatically switched into the reigning Anglo-Indian; if I hadn’t, not only would I have been seen as a snob, especially in those early post-Independence years, but I simply would not have been understood. When friends came over to our house to play and my mother spoke to them, I had to step in and translate. This was hazardous, because if my father had caught me speaking in the sing-song Anglo-Indian accent, I would have been in trouble.

During my two-and-a-half years at the British Embassy School in Athens, Standard English was the norm, so my Queen’s English became naturalized. Ironically,  during my brief stay at Gospel Oak school in London when I was nine, not a single child in my class had that so-called standard accent. When the class had to select someone to recite William Blake’s poem “Little Lamb, Who Made Thee?” at a school assembly, they chose me, the outsider. Why? Because “she doesn’t have an accent”! The children living in London, the insiders from my perspective, felt themselves to be not-quite-normal because they spoke in the diversity of ways people actually speak; while I, living outside of the country, had been taught to cultivate “BBC English.”  (Nowadays, of course, fewer BBC broadcasters use Standard English—regional and working-class (or faux working-class) accents having become not only acceptable, but trendy—unless, perhaps, they are British Asians.)

My accent now adjusts reflexively to blend in with my milieu. Even so, when I am visiting my English family they consider it wholly American, while back in the States I still get regular comments on “that lovely English accent.” The simple truth is that people recognize difference, not sameness. When I took Nikhil with me to India at age 13, I remember him squirming with embarrassment upon hearing my re-Indianized accent among my Indian family. Yet I was not switching it on deliberately, just doing what had become second-nature. In fact, it would be difficult for me to identify my “real” accent, since it is more accurately a continuum, a range of different registers that changes with my environment.

Much as my accent has Americanized itself over the more than forty years I have lived in the States—and I still remember my mother crying out as if in pain when she first heard me roll my r’s American-style—I wonder why I have retained so much of my English accent. Is it an affectation, as some people may suspect? Is it that by age 15 one is fully formed, and one’s accent, like the tastes and values one was raised with, are now permanent, imprinted with indelible ink that can only fade but never disappear altogether? Or is it that I have regularly received positive reinforcement for it, so that there is little incentive to change? Would I have had a greater incentive to cast off my accent if it had been considered funny rather than charming?

I confess that I have expressed contempt in the past for those who take the “accent reduction” classes advertized in newspapers like India Abroad that cater to Indian Americans. But I feel ashamed of that contempt,  because Indian accents, which I love, and never tire of listening to in all their rich diversity, are, unlike English accents, regularly ridiculed in both the United States and Britain, and can be a real handicap for the immigrant seeking to assimilate to a new and sometimes unwelcoming society. The Indian accent has been so caricatured, as exemplified in Britain by Peter Sellers’ Indian doctor in the song “Goodness Gracious Me” and his films The Millionairess (1960) and The Party (1968); and in the U.S. by Hank Azaria’s Apu, the Indian convenience store owner in The Simpsons. So much have these caricatures become the norm, that—as depicted in Hanif Kureishi’s The Buddha of Suburbia—Indians themselves looking for acting roles are not considered “authentic” unless they exaggerate their accents into mockeries of themselves. Not so funny. No wonder many would rather seek to erase them.

Tell Me Another

  1. HI Jojo,
    your homily brought back painful memories of my youth growing up in Dorchester. The accent was particularly offensive to the nuns at my school(St. Gregory’s) and I quite unconsciously “got rid of it”. Neither my brother or I have a trace of the Dorchester accent today even though we can still revert when we want to. I still remember the shock of hearing Jean speak with such a strong regional accent (Revere) when I first met her, but, over the years she has also moderated it, perhaps from living in Kansas for a while? Do you detect an “accent” in either of us today?

    • Dear Vincent,
      Thanks so much for responding to this one. I was afraid that the subject cut a little to close to the bone (and not the funny bone, either). To answer your question: when I think about it—but I had to think about it—both you and Jean have generalized but not very strong Boston accents to me. I am not enough of an expert to be able to discern traces of Dorchester or Revere.
      It’s interesting about reverting. My mother’s family all grew up with cockney accents which have faded to varying degrees, but when they used to get together and have a few drinks they would start reverting, partly in jest and partly for the sheer pleasure of it, speaking in cockney rhyming slang, the works. Mum rarely reverted on these occasions, though, whether consciously or otherwise, and I think it’s because the forced erasure of her childhood accent was such a traumatic experience for her, involving a lot of humiliation when she started grammar school. In those days, if you got into grammar school (and very few working-class children did), you were trained to speak Standard English with a middle-class accent, and there was shame associated with the cockney accent. My Dad would never talk about it, but I would be surprised if he hadn’t had his share of mockery when he was first living in London as a young man fresh from India. Being highly educated and more well-read than most English people, it must have been galling. No, I don’t find “funny” accents funny at all! Love, Jo

  2. I love accents of all sorts and am sad to see them disappear, yet although I hate to say it, I can see the need sometimes for at least ameliorating them. Some ways of speaking English can be so distinctive that it’s truly hard to communicate in ostensibly the same language (and embarrassing, as it always seems that either you sounds as if you’re correcting the other person or you’re coming across as in idiot). So much has to do with cadence and speed as much as the actual pronunciation.

    I grew up surrounded by Scots, so have little trouble with that, but even in rural Ireland, I could barely understand some of the people, especially older folks. In Berlin during the early 1970s, there were a lot of Sudanese men there to study engineering, and we had to really work at understanding each other. (Although the language part was a lot easier than the cultural. I remember going out with a girlfriend and a couple of the men one time. When they left the table to get us drinks, we were sternly ordered not to speak with anyone while they were gone. That went over well . . .!)

    I was going out with a man who moved to the US from Ghana when he was 12. He speaks with a very standard middle-American accent, so I was completely surprised the first time I heard him talk to his mother over the phone using the lilting cadences of Ghana. Interestingly, it made him seem like a completely different person. I just heard from him that he’s taking his mother to Ghana this month for the first time since he was 12. I wonder what it will be like to be surrounded by the speech that he reserves for family.

    • You’re absolutely right, Sarah. If people are going to communicate easily and effectively they have to be mutually intelligible. My dear Uncle Bill lived most of his adult life outside of his native Glasgow and yet his accent never diminished, and many people found it hard to understand him. (Although this might not be a good example because this fact endeared him to us all the more!) Nikhil and his little baby-school classmates had an accent all their own, part Brooklyn, part Cockney (I don’t know where they got it from, but he would say “booerd” for “bird” and “Dizey, Dizey (give me your answer do)). It had to go, but I was sad when it was trained out of him in kindergarten. And you’re absolutely right about cadence and speed being critical to comprehension. South Indians, for instance, seem to speak twice as fast as everyone else–it can very hard to follow.

      I love what you said about your Ghanaian friend who seemed like a different person when he was speaking with his mother on the phone, In some respects, perhaps he was; the language itself allowed a different part of him to emerge that couldn’t give itself full expression through the medium of English. And returning to Ghana where the speech which has always been private is now public—that could be mind-blowing for him (in a wonderful way). All through my childhood my father said “Aai ga” whenever he yawned, and I never knew why or what it meant. Then I went to Maharashtra and lived with our extended family for six months. Everyone said “Aai ga” when they were addressing their mother, and I realized after all those years that my Dad had been calling out to his mother every time he yawned.

  3. Hello
    You commented on my blog post about my grandmother’s birthday book and directed me here. I’m so glad! This is the third post I’ve read – your stories are wonderful and when I get home from work tonight, I will read some more. It’s really nice to ‘meet’ you.

    • Thanks so much for your comment, Michelle. I’m happy that you’ve enjoyed reading Tell Me Another. It’s delightful to me when people connect with a story, especially when it sparks memories of their own. I’m looking forward to returning to your blog as well. Josna

  4. I think that comment above is spam. I don’t find accents funny either, nor do I fear that everybody I hear conversing in a language I don’t understand is talking about me.

    • I think so too, Kristin, and will remove it. Thank you for your comment. Yes, I’ve heard that said so often, and particularly in reference to Asian Americans, that I think it’s become one of those urban legends–no, that’s not the right term. What do you call those racist or xenophobic stories that are repeated so often that people come to believe them to be true? Like, “they only come to this country to make a lot of money fast and then go back”?

  5. Accents like food add to the rich tapestry of a nation, I think. Sadly, too much importance is given to how we speak and not what we speak. Things are changing (e.g. BBC), so here’s
    hoping. I’m not sure if you’ve seen this video- I love it, so I’m sharing it with you…

    • I love it, Arti–thanks for sharing the link. I love accents of all kinds and revel in their variety. But as you say, it’s what a person is saying that should count, not the social snobbery that needs to place that person as an insider or as an undesirable. Thanks for commenting.

  6. Sorry Josna…forgot my commas. Accents, like food, add….As you can see- I do love my commas (a tad too much, perhaps:)

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