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Where the stress falls

Even in a politically correct world,accents remain the one thing we feel free to mock.

Even in a politically correct world,accents remain the one thing we feel free to mock.

In India,divided as we are by our one common language,mimicking accents is the cheapest route to a laugh. As Dharma Kumar once wrote in a great Seminar piece,every Indian language group finds the English pronunciation of other groups hilarious — “the Punjabi who goes to the ‘satation’ to meet a ‘luyyer’ and the Bengali who hears the ‘bhard’ ‘shing’ unite in roaring with laughter at yevery Tamil.”

Nothing marks you more clearly as a product of your background as the way you talk. We snap-judge people without even meaning to — accents convey class and place,worldliness and authenticity. Some are high status (like ‘pakh ya cah in Hahvahd Yahd’,in the US),or charming,or sexy,others are embarrassing encumbrances. The adjectives tell you the value judgment — a Meditteranean lilt,a rustic Bihari accent,a cultivated Oxbridge accent. Of course,the prestige of various accents shifts,like ­hip-hop-loving kids trying to put on a streetwise African-American voice.

If an accent is a deviation from normal,“normal” is a mirage. There is no zero-degree way of speaking. Sure,there is an old upper-class Indian English accent concocted in elite schools,which sounds confidently itself,immaculate,to people who have passed through these institutions,leading them to think only other people have accents. Except even that fancy accent is unstable across places,flecked with regional idiosyncrasies — public school-types in Ooty and Darjeeling and Dehradun don’t sound the same.

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Few people naturally speak General American (the default news network dialect),it is a refined version of Walter Cronkite’s Midwestern accent. England has come a long way from Henry Higgins and the BBC’s Received Pronunciation with the spread of the levelling Estuary accent,and the less judgmental acceptance of regional variations.

But here we are,Macaulay’s misfits,assessing each other,giving ourselves away with every unfamiliar word. I worked at a news channel for a bit,and was once ticked off by a very correct anchorman for shaming the channel on air,by pronouncing “hazardous” with the stress on the second syllable. It was,like many words,something I’d never said or heard,only read.

Recent research claims that babies are locked into their accents by the age of one,as they pick up the distinctive sounds of the dialect they hear,even before they learn to speak. Even when you studiously cultivate a tongue,your older accent flares and fades within the new one.


These moments of slippage can be awful for some people,though. In The Satanic Verses,Saladin Chamcha,the virtuoso voiceover man,finds himself terrifyingly unable to hold on to his English accent. The Bombay lilt strikes back,“long-suppressed locutions,discarded consonants and vowels” begin to leak out of his mouth. His friend Zeeny tells him “your angrez accent wrapped around you like a flag,and don’t think it’s so perfect,it slips,baba,like a false moustache”.

I’ve been accused of saying “well” in an American way,“absurd” in a Malayali way. My husband claims I say “vy” and “vot”,when I think I tend to do it the other way,that is,talk about my great “wacation”. I also do the chameleon thing,vary my accent depending on whom I’m talking to — I catch myself doing an obliging sing-song aunty intonation without thinking about it (“abbbso-lutely,wi-lll do”),and slipping into a shameful halfway accent when I talk to customer service abroad.

But despite the fact that we all subtly make up our accents as we go along,we’re brutal about those who are seen striving,who are obvious about rolling their ‘r’s and aspirating their ‘t’s. The “picked up his accent at the airport” guy is a figure of fun. An accent as affectation invites mockery,whether you’re trying to emulate posh murmurs or the swagger of the street — Hillary Clinton,Tony Blair,Barack Obama,even Rahul Gandhi,have all been accused of putting on folksy accents at election time.


And yet,if you think about it,there is nothing less ­natural,nothing more purely social than an accent. The whole fuss about accents arises out of cultural mixing and passing,about strangers communicating. They become noticeable only when people of different origins step out of their comfort zones,and share a language.

First published on: 07-07-2012 at 01:38:35 am
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