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Apu and the Indian Accent

Written By: Usree Bhattacharya on July 13, 2008 2 Comments

“Did you grow up here? You don’t sound like an Indian!” I’ve been told, not once, not twice, but too many times to recount. Usually, I stammer out some apologetic answer-I’ve lived in the States for the past four years, I spent a couple of years in NY as a child, or that as a lifelong student of languages, I have an ear for accents, and am good at mimicking them. I say apologetic answer because while the questions are always posed as compliments, I cannot but feel like I am being accused of cloaking my very Indianness behind what is only an acquired and surface accent. I’ve never deliberately “acquired” accents to fit in, however; I’ve just always had the ability to pick them up…and regardless of how limited my proficiency in a language, the accent has always been something that has fascinated me, and something I’ve taken pains to approximate.

Having said that, several things bother me about the perceptions regarding the “Indian accent.” First of all, there is no broad Indian accent; there are hundreds of languages and dialects in India, and each imbues the L1 speaker of an Indian language/dialect with a distinct accent. That is not to say that there are hundreds of different kinds of accented English speech in India, just that there are variations, even if those are only subtle ones. I remember being very irritated when I encountered a reading in a Language and Identity class, when in a discussion of Ben Rampton’s work, Nikolas Coupland describes what Rampton labels as Stylised Asian English: “A reasonable approximation to SAE,” Coupland says, “from global popular culture might be the speech style of the Apu character from the TV Show The Simpsons” (p. 139).

Apu

First of all, the term “Asian” is a misnomer here: the “Middle Eastern” English accent is different from the “Japanese” English accent is different from the “Indonesian” accent is different from the “Indian” accent, if any of them could be so reductively considered. In addition, the “Apu” character speaks with a very exaggerated accent, exaggerated for the purpose of mockery of the very same accent, that is, for comic effect . Secondly, there is an element of mockery of a people embedded in this blanket-terming of the “Indian” accent (for more on this, click here).

Why blog about this now? Recently when I was walking down a hallway, I overheard a student retelling an encounter about another student who had a heavy “Indian accent.” He couldn’t see me walking down the hallway, and his voice carried across the corridor. He was recounting his conversation with the Indian student, exaggerating the accent (I imagine), and his conversant was laughing loudly. He remarked, “It’s a wonder these [expletive] get customer service jobs,” and he proceeded to mimic an Indian-accented customer service person offering technical support. As I walked away, I could hear titters of laughter in the distance. Close on the heels of that incident, I stepped into a local bus, and walked in on a conversation the bus driver was having with another passenger about an Indian driver who couldn’t speak any English. Or, as he explained, because of his accent, he might as well be speaking “Indian” (there is no language called “Indian”!!!!!), he was so incomprehensible. This was followed by a couple of jokes, again, about Indian telemarketers, the Indian accent in general, and the ineptitude (to put it euphemistically) of heavily accented Indians. For some reason, my presence did nothing to change the nature of the conversation or the offensive commentary (I am not clear why).

I came away from both incidents feeling a little angry and frustrated. Yes, people in India speak English with different accents, they sometimes sound “funny” to the foreign ear, sometimes they sound “funny” even to the “Indian” ear. No, not every one in India speaks with the exaggerated “Apu” accent. And an accent is not always the best indicator of a person’s proficiency in the language, though it can certainly affect comprehension at the other end. And it certainly is not reflective of a person’s intellect.

I am thinking this is all a little dumb.

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2 Responses to “Apu and the Indian Accent”

  1. Big Wayne on: 16 September 2008 at 1:26 pm

    an accent is not always the best indicator of a person’s proficiency in the language, though it can certainly affect comprehension at the other end.

    ———- you hit that nail right on the head ! everybody’s voice sounds different, but when it impedes comprehension, it’s a problem . . .

  2. Anonymous on: 10 January 2010 at 1:52 pm

    Thank you! I face the same dilemna… finally, someone who gets it!

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