How to talk with an Indian accent

Having spent many years in the US, I have often been told that I speak “without an accent.” Of course it is impossible to speak without any accent.  For example, broadly we can say that some people have American, British, or Indian accents which can be further divided into regional accents like Bostonian, Cockney, or received Benglish. If you talk like an Oxford hack, an editor at the Economist might say that you have no accent, because it wouldn’t be noticeable to him or her.

Sacha Baron Cohen. His name-a-Borat. Naaat

What does it mean to be told that you don’t have an accent? It is a polite way of saying that you weren’t wearing the tee-shirt with “I am proud to be an Indian” in huge block letters printed over an elephant that day. And your new acquaintance made an honest mistake of not being able to figure out both your ethnicity and nationality in under 10 milliseconds.

But there is also a bit of suspicion that you notice in his or her eyes. Is that really the way you talk or do you have an amorphous call-center accent that changes with each client? In other words, are you sincere or are you faking it?

There is nothing worse than having an insincere accent. You turn into a caricature if you try to ape Paul Hogan’s Australian “G’day mate” from Crocodile Dundee or Leonardo DiCaprio’s South African Archer spelled “ay ah- see-aich-e-ah” from Blood Diamond. Foster’s may be Oztrayl-yun for beyah, but you’ll be in the middle of a diplomatic crisis if you try to say it with a straight face  in Melbourne these days.

Some can actually make fake accents cool. I don’t blame you if wish you had Prince Julian’s suave Indian accent as he crooned “I like to move it, move it” in Madagascar. But that was Sacha Baron Cohen. Cohen can be anyone he wants to be. You are not Cohen.

You don’t even sound like Hank Azaria or Tom Kenny with their genuwine desi accents for Apu on The Simpsons and Asok on Dilbert.

Sip on your water (“normal” please, no ice). At least you are Indian. Pakistanis and Bangladeshis have the added burden of explaining that they only look Indian.

Breathe. Relax.  “I watched a lot of Hollywood movies,” or “English is like a native language for me,” you say apologetically. For the next few seconds there is  cold silence as your acquaintance tries to figure out if you are lying. Then, the waiter arrives with the tuna tartare and the silence is broken. You’re not in the spotlight anymore and balance is restored to the setting.

Keep your chin up. If you’ve ever felt left out because of having an accent (or not having a particular one), you’ll like the story I am about to tell you. This happened to a friend, who I know did not make it up because he is a gentleman beyond reproach, and the story is too ridiculous for fiction. Dave, I have to share the story, but if you write a memoir, I’m sure many readers of this piece will buy it.

Many years ago, this friend of mine arrived in the middle of Iowa straight out of the UK. One day he is at a bar making conversation with some new friends. There is a lively conversation going on. In the middle of the conversation, a girl blurts out that my friend “has an accent.”

“So where are you from?” she asks in a clueless drone.
“I’m from England,” he replies, a bit taken aback.
“Oh, okay… What do they speak over in England… (pause) German?”

Speechless!

______________

Creative Commons license for image of SBC: http://www.flickr.com/photos/joeshlabotnik/ / CC BY 2.0

© 2010-2012, Anirban

About these ads

38 thoughts on “How to talk with an Indian accent

  1. While on the topic of accents, it should probably be mentioned that I think the English have the coolest, and the Australians have the most entertaining.

    Oh, and by the way, Apu’s accent is not authentic Indian. :P

  2. I am speechless too.. well Americans have been know for their intelligence :)

    As for the accent part, it becomes imperative to lose the burden of your accent when you are in a foreign country. It becomes easier to communicate without an accent.

  3. Nish, I think my friend is ok with me leaking this story ;)

    Gurdit, my first acquaintance with the Yorkshire accent was listening to Geoffrey Boycott talk cricket. I have a special fondness for that one. And I know you are trying to get me worked up on Apu. I hate that sing-song, insensitve accent. I know he is only doing his job, but if I ever see Hank Azaria, I’ll punch him in the face.

    LP, jokes aside, I think Americans are no dumber or smarter than the people in the other countries where they come from. I do like the diversity in the US and the fact that it is by and large a meritocracy. Plus, this is not an America-specific issue. In India people try to track state from accent and I’ve been disparagingly told that I sound American and should work as a call-center coach :P

    Thanks for reading folks!

    • Excellent question, Deboleena. If you watch some of the Hollywood movies of from the 30s-50s you will notice an artificial accent used by American and British actors to appear “cultured” and “neutral”. Known as the mid-Altantic accent it has fallen out of favor ever since. Apparently Roosevelt cultivated and spoke with this accent.

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mid-Atlantic_English

      Take care.

    • That is hilarious.

      In Bangla there is traditionally no “z” sound either. In light of that revelation the following line makes a lot more sense:

      “Are you going to the Jew to see the animals?”

  4. i would love to speak how Mr Tharoor speaks but on second thoughts why should i? If or when i do have an accent i would like to be proud that people instead of saying hey u don’t sound like a Bihari should know where i hail from because that actually is me.Rest is all put on.And put ons don’t last somewhere sometime u are bound to come to ur original.And some accents are very pleasant like Borat…i am king JULIYANNE…I LIKE TO MOVE IT …MOVE IT.And Chatur Ramalingam would’ve failed to make an impact as such if he didn’t have that accent…tofu kabool kijiye.Good post sry blabbered so much. :)

    • Good points. Thanks for reading.

      By the way, I can’t open your blog. It keeps redirecting to some other ad page on Firefox. Maybe something to do with the new template?

  5. Anirban thanx for letting me know…yeah some third party gadgets i put on my template created that problem. Apologies for that inconvenience caused.However have removed everything so please oblige me now.Comments help you stay put isn’t it?

  6. cool…post…interesting topic to talk….
    You know,its not your accent which matters.At the end of the day your knowledge speaks it all.I think people who are conscious about accent actually lack knowledge.In such cases they have no other weapon apart from their bloody accent.We cant forget our roots and prove ourselves smart by adopting a western accent

  7. Well said ….I do not believe there is any right or wrong way of speaking English…..but somehow when we Indians make a mistake…we are ridiculed about….reminded me, among many scenes, the one from Harold and Kumar – I when the skin heads mess up the gas station !!

  8. Guess you can try being on a bigger platform. You have a lot of ideas (which I think of stealing sometimes) and a very fluid style of writing.

    My Astrology knowledge is telling me that you deal a lot with writing and/or some sort of editing in your professional life.

      • The first line wasn’t sarcastic or anything like that. After the first 2/3 posts in this blog, the others have always been fun and ‘easy’ to read

  9. Nice one!

    So what’s the answer, then? Did she find out what they speak in England? :-|

    I often (sub)consciously change my accent (for every language), depending on who I’m speaking to and how important it is that I make it easier for them to understand me.

    Have you seen this?

    g

    • Thanks. I have no evidence to back it up, but I would think that people who are multilingual change accents in the same language much in the same way they change languages effortlessly. I do the same too, though my sister says that I speak like an American even why I try.

      Thanks also for sharing the link. That is pretty impressive stuff.

  10. I have been a debater, an avid reader but when I talk to some of my american contemporaries, they had a hard time understanding my accent. The thing is, it is what you may call ‘neutral'(mind you correct pronunciations, z as in buzz and not budge). I don’t roll my tongue(and if some desis are reading this, please don’t roll your tongues or add the derisory ‘h’ to whatever you say, it’s irksome and awkward). However you do pick up a certain dialect and that in a while helps(not really). What generally happens is that people fear that their argument might be debased as facetious if it’s not for that accent(snafus). The Indian accent is perfectly acceptable(even roosevelt had a similar one dawg!) and legitimate. What say Anirban?

    • I agree with you. In fact I’d stretch it to say that every accent is acceptable as long as the thought is well-articulated. Thanks for reading. :)

  11. Lol at the line:

    At least you are Indian. Pakistanis and Bangladeshis have the added burden of explaining that they only look Indian.

    I wonder where you get the ideas for the steady flow of your ROFL posts. :)

  12. um… King Julian is African, and isn’t he played by Will.I.Am? No, Julian is African and speaks with an African accent, but if you don’t pay close attention, I guess it can be mestaken for That Hindi, Muslim, Indian accent. I think the accent is quite hot. I don’t hear it so much when boys speak the language, but in English, it’s REALLY HOT!!! No… not hot… IT”S SEXIII!!! Nice blog and it is true. Americans say we don’t have accents, but we do.

    • As a Madagascan lemur, King Julian is definitely African. His accent isn’t though.

      Check out this interview with the director of the movie:

      We had this two-line character, Julian, and we got a tape of the show “Ali G” with Sacha Baron Cohen. He came in and he invented this Indian accent. We gave him a couple of lines and he turned them into eight minutes of dialogue

      Source: http://www.seattlepi.com/movies/225746_moment26.html

  13. On behalf of ALL Iowans (who speak with no less than five regional inflections of the Midwest dialect), I apologize to your friend. No doubt the bar was a typical, parochial dive in small-town Iowa City, Iowa. Cosmopolitan they are not. When I moved there in the mid 70’s, I had a Kansas City and St. Louis accent mixed (light southern drawl with hard “r” sound), and I spent months learning theie east-central Iowa inflections and word choices so I sounded more local. I still wonder why. Now I live closer to Minnesota (make your “i” short and your “o” longer and louder – Mn-is-sOH-tah) and Nebraska (remember to say “I’m goin ta the store”). *EVERYONE* speaks with an accent. We just don’t realize it often. I try to copy a local accent as quickly as I can, warning the people first I’m not from their area. (Still can’t get rural Alabama or rural Vermont at all!) Anyone who speaks one of the 30 major, or 1,600 total languages of India such as Hindi-Urdu *and* speaks English well is ahead of most Iowans. Or Americans, for that matter. Most are mono-linguistic; and maybe not-so-good even at English. Welcome to all legal immigrants! May your paths be smooth and skillful, and may we add to each others’ prosperity and lives.

  14. hahaha.. real funny..

    I dont really have an issue with accents but more with ppl who preach that one accent is better than the other. :)

  15. Why are we so complex about our Indian/Pakistani accents.Look at English and American people they can not speak a word from Hindi at least we try to speak their language.

  16. A lot of Indian or Pakistani people these days have ‘neutral’ English or American accents. :)

    My history teacher has a weird mix of accents when she’s teaching but when she’s talking directly to someone she suddenly switches to the same accent as the person she’s speaking to. It’s really weird…

  17. there’s no parteekiular Indian akcent. i meen, think of tha Tamil akcent and then think of tha Gujrati akcent and then of tha Bengali akcent. Thery arn’t that mach similar, are they?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s