It has featured in every comedian’s one-liners, and punchlines, and produces a lot of laughter. But there is a thin line between comedy and mockery.
Accents are like little verbal flags that we wave in honour of our home towns. Thousands of accents grace the world, and they’re all kinds of amazing.
Accents are like little flavors that every culture embellishes a language with. They’re beautiful and unique.
But what happens when something as innocent as a particular way of pronunciation becomes a social issue. Today, accents are often stigmatized and treated with ridicule and stereotypes.
Accents play a particularly big deal in India. While speaking English, you balance the tightropes of societal norms. Too desi sounding? Must be gawar or uneducated. Too American or British sounding? Arre the colonisers might have left, but they sure left their slaves behind!
Its this drumbeat of hypocrisy that we walk to. And as a fifteen-year-old who’s lived equal parts of her life abroad and in India, I am eternally confused.
I have the hard ‘T’ sound that punctuates my every ‘waTer’ as well as the rolling ‘R’ which graces my words. But the ‘d’ glides right of my tongue like an American and my ‘o’s’ resemble the British pronunciation. So what do I do?
When I moved to the UK, I worked my hardest to lose the ‘Indianness’ in my words and embrace the British pronunciation. I remember the frustration that I felt when the words would twist and turn in my tongue, unable to form. The fact that my peers raised their eyes and could never understand me did not seem to help either.
Ever since I’ve become quite good at the whole accent game. I can speak with an American accent as easily as I can slip into a Desi accent punctuated with Bangalorean slangs. And while my accent mix-ups are quite innocent, I’m well aware of the prejudice it brings with them.
I believe in walking with the crowd. Outside I speak with an American accent. At home, or with my friends back in India, I switch back to the Indian accent. The ‘switch’ is not unique to me, every immigrant is familiar with it.
And why do I do it?
I’m aware of the stereotype the accent draws with it. If you speak with a foreign twang at home or with your family you’re perceived as a showoff or a brat. If you speak at school with an Indian accent, jokes about your nerdiness, Apu from the Simpsons, accompanied with the ridiculous head waggling begins.
And it’s not just an Indian thing, it’s a problem worldwide.
There have been several cases of racism experienced in the US, as an increasing number of people admit they have been discriminated against because they don’t speak the English language very well. Hispanic people in particular, often face the brunt of accent discrimination.
A double standard also exists with accents. A European accent is acceptable, attractive even. How many times have you seen Netflix shows churn out the ‘ cute swedish/french/german/ british guy cliche?
With the number of British guys suddenly appearing out of nowhere in American high school movies, you’d think we had a problem!
Most people claim that they’re not being racist, its just the way they feel. This could be symptomatic of hidden biases, and the way we internalize external messages from all around us.
Research has shown that we tend to unconsciously group people into a specific social class and prejudice against them based on their accents. By thinking that someone with a particular accent is not very smart or clever, we are showing our unconscious bias.
Since they face such ridicule, condescension, and hostility, many immigrants go to great lengths to reduce their accents and speak like natives, often seeking speech therapists and tutors for help.
And it’s not right. No one should have to feel like they need to hide a part of themselves.
Some think that the reason for this discrimination lies behind the fact that accents often make comprehensibility difficult. Let me tell you this, I have lived in a variety of places, heard hundreds of diverse accents and I’m yet to find one that is absolutely incomprehensible. Sure, there always is a few sounds that people stumble over, but never such that the meaning is completely lost.
So I’ve decided to stop trying so hard to fit the accent around me. It’s okay if my consonants are hard and roll of my tongue when I’m with my friends, it’s also okay if I sound ‘foreign’ when I speak to my family.
Because while accents might just be a small turn of the tongue that we gain from a region, they also play a central role in moulding our identity.
And I’m okay with who I am.