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.
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?”
© 2010-2012, Anirban