Speaking in Tongues: Accents and Identity

by Samir Chopra

Accent-CatLike every human being on this planet, I speak with an accent. In my case, I speak the English language with a hybrid, mongrelized Indian variant that bears the impress of thirty years spent on the US East Coast—in New York City and New Jersey—with a two year stint in Australia in between. It is distinct and unmistakable and clear in its lilt and inflection; no American, listening to me, will think I have grown up in the US. My ‘looks’—perhaps vaguely Hispanic, Middle-Eastern, or Southern European—might confuse some Americans about my ethnic and national origins; they receive instant confirmation, once I begin speaking, that I’m some kind of ‘foreigner.’ The way I speak makes clear I’m from ‘elsewhere:’ I mix up my ‘W’s and ‘V’s, occasionally inducing double takes in bartenders when I specified vodka-based cocktails during my drinking days; I do not always pronounce vowels in the clipped and muddied style so distinctive of American English; I emphasize syllables in my own idiosyncratic way. Sometimes, when I travel in Europe, locals peg me as ‘American’ because they have picked up on an Americanism or an acquired American twang in my speech—they, for their part, seem to think I have an ‘American accent.’ Because the Indian accent has intonation patterns similar to that of Irish, Scottish, and Welsh accents, I’ve sometimes been asked—in the US—why as a brown man, I’m speaking in a brogue. (In the opening scenes of the 1990s British crime film, Twin Town, the Lewis brothers, from Swansea, Wales, are shown talking to their mother; their conversation is only partially audible but from the up-and-down sing-song intonations, I could have sworn I was listening to Indians.) Sometimes American listeners will insist I have a ‘British’ accent because I’m Indian, because India was an English colony and I attended so-called ‘English medium public schools,’ the Indian equivalent to the English or American private school. And so it goes.

The 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, as I have participated in conversations, my spoken English has, in a kind of sympathetic dance, aligned itself with that of the speaker’s. My wife points out that when I converse with a good French friend, I start throwing around Gallic shrugs by the dozen; and when I lived in Australia, I picked up, quite quickly, many distinct Australianisms, and delighted in deploying them in my speech to my Australian friends (especially when it came to matters of shared interest like cricket). When I speak to Indians visiting the US from India, they make note of how impressed they are by the fact that I still comfortably trade in street-level colloquialisms in my conversations in Hindi/Urdu. I have, in a way, retained my Indian accent in my Indian languages; some Indians tell me I speak Hindi/Urdu with a Delhi accent; some Pakistanis assure me I speak Punjabi with a Pakistani accent. I do not belong anywhere; my accents give me away. My accent reflects my mixed-up nature, part Indian, part American, part migrant, part itinerant wanderer, part stable resident.

Because I speak English with an accent, it is a common enough suggestion—often made to my face, in all kinds of social settings, professional or personal, formal or informal—that English is not my ‘first language’, that rather, it is my ‘second language.’ But English is my first language in every relevant dimension; I speak, read, think, and write better in English than any other language.

The imputation of an accent to me is supposed to indicate I’m speaking a language ‘foreign’ to me, that some measure of competency in it may be lacking on my part; but English isn’t foreign to me in any sense of the word; it is as familiar to me as my skin and hair color; I just speak it with an accent. As do American and English and Australian folks, all speakers for whom English is supposed to be a first language. The presence of an accent is not evidence of mangled syntax or insufficient expressive capacity; but those to whom it is imputed, and those who do the imputing, might be excused for thinking that it does.

When I speak English with 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: the intonations and emphases, the distinctive Indian-English colloquialisms, the rapid switching back and forth between English and Hindi/Urdu, sometimes carried out so effortlessly that a casual listener might not be able to make out which language I’m speaking at any given instant. My brother made an acute observation when he said to me—on my first journey back to India after spending 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.” He had noticed I had been engaging in a form of ‘code switching’ while I lived in the US, changing my spoken visible behavior in a foreign land; now that I was back ‘home’ I was another kind of ‘foreigner,’ slowly recovering my footing in this older linguistic terrain. If an American friend were to pick me up at JFK after a return from a trip to India, he’d find me ‘speaking funny’ when I first alighted, only to be sorted out as time went by and I returned to familiar haunts and ways of being and speaking.

Once, I was accused—by a ‘fellow’ Indian—of feigning an American accent, of ‘putting on’ a ‘fake accent’; it was 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 of the assimilated and the acceptable, seeking linguistic cover to do so. Among Indians, such accusations are almost fatal; they mark out the person speaking with a ‘fake accent’ as an impostor, a self-hating Indian ashamed of being Indian, seeking to curry favor—no pun intended—with the white folk. Conversely, I was appalled to find out when I arrived in the US some three decades ago that my accent was a matter of some interest to Americans; I had assumed that my competence in English was all I needed to gain entrance into American life. It was not a feature of my speech that I had ever paid attention to in India, and for a naturally shy person, to have something about my ‘appearance’ become a matter of visible, public, social interest, something to be remarked and commented on, was mortifying. A few years later, thanks to the intonations of Apu, the Simpsons character, an Indian accent in the US became an ever more fraught business, another sort of liability; even if I didn’t sound like Apu, Apu’s accent would be the one mine would be analogized to, and such comparisons—with the comical, the ridiculous, the absurd—were almost never favorable to the content of what I was trying to get across. To sound like an Indian was to invite comparison with Apu, with the non-seriousness he embodied.

No American, of course, has had his spoken English acquire an Indian accent by talking to me, so perhaps the accusation that I was the one seeking assimilation through linguistic disguise did have some weight. Perhaps there is a bit of Zelig in me–in the linguistic dimension; I acquire the forms and shapes of those around me because I seek to lose my own identity, to blend in, to not be noticed, to be accepted and perhaps be even approved of; to lose an accent and to gain a new one is the greatest marker of assimilation. The American who goes to England and sees black folk speaking English with local distinctive dialects realizes that these are English folk, speaking English like the ‘locals’ because that is who they are. The greatest sign of their having become English is that they speak English like the English do. (In English society, other markers, perhaps of class, perhaps of skin color, emerge to put them in their place.)

Accents are markers of privilege and power. The immigrant loses his accent, but not all kinds of immigrants do; it depends on who is immigrating, and where and when. 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. A Canadian friend wrote to me, “Many Newfoundlanders move and lose their accents, learn to speak ‘correctly,’ but I can’t think of Canadians who move to Newfoundland and pick up the local way of speaking. Power and perception of prestige guides whether accents are abandoned, modified, or clung to.” There is little you can do about skin color—tanning and bleaching excepted, 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. Such linguistic assimilation is crucial for the immigrant; if immigrant parents shrink from raising their child bilingually because they fear the child will not learn to speak English ‘properly’ or ‘in time,’ it is because they carry around nightmares of the difficulties created in their lives not just by their lack of fluency in English but also of the many times they were misunderstood and mocked because they spoke English with a different intonation scheme.

All accents and languages are not equal. 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, who also speak unfamiliar languages that have been significantly othered. (Speaking Arabic now in public spaces has now become an especially fraught business; a brown man does so at some risk of acute social discomfort.)

More problematically, an accent can disguise your content with its form; you might be making eminent sense, but the overlaying accent invokes a prejudice that clouds comprehension. I’ve often wondered how well my accent fits into an American classroom, where I’ve been teaching, on and off, for almost as long as I’ve been in the US. (One gentleman who conducted a teaching evaluation in my classroom made note of my accent, and then asked me to repeat a sentence aloud to him in the department office; I declined.) A fellow Indian academic was recommended—on the basis of student evaluations—that he attend ‘accent removal classes’ in Australia; his expression as he recounted this story has not escaped my memory; he had clearly experienced it as a humiliation.

My sensitivities in this regard have not diminished. A few years ago, I wrote to a friend of mine after an evening out:

I wanted to bring up something that was on my mind on Saturday night. Perhaps because of an old shyness and awkwardness in social settings or because of old residues of being sensitive about my 'foreignness' I become uncomfortable when people point out/mimic/or make fun of/ my accent or my idiosyncrasies of pronunciation. When we had gone out for dinner a few weeks ago, I remember you had mimicked my accent and it had made me very uncomfortable, but I didn't say anything, and…kept talking because I didn't want to acknowledge it. The effect on me is that I become less communicative perhaps because I am unwilling to provide any more ammo for mockery. I wish I weren't so picky/touchy about this but because I am felt it best to clear the air. I suspect too that because I used to stutter as a kid, and got a lot of grief for that, I'm still uncomfortable about my speech being noticed by anybody.

A reminder of an accent, especially in mixed company, can be a galling business; it is simple reminder of difference, of outside status. These reminders can vary: sometimes it’s the request to speak slower, to repeat oneself; many people are asked to repeat themselves or to speak more slowly, but only the accented one suspects it is his accent that is to blame; sometimes it’s the insensitive impromptu mimicry; sometimes it’s the well-meant but often awkward, “I love it when you pronounce X like that”; or, as a couple of my girlfriends assured me in the past, “your accent is so cute”; sometimes it’s 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.

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. Her mother, born in Michigan and raised in Ohio by an Indian family, speaks English with a slight Midwestern bias; once in a while she will pronounce words with an emphasis that speaks to the closeness of the American south to Cincinnati, her hometown. My daughter speaks English with a hybrid somehow-typically-Brooklyn accent all her own; there are times I can hear, faintly, an Indian intonation or two. I wonder if those will survive, or whether she will sound like a Brooklyn girl, whatever that means, soon enough. Perhaps she will be moved enough by the difference in her spoken English and mine to inquire into the roots and significance of that difference.