Our myriad accents have their own jurisdictions, suggesting we can belong to multiple worlds
Cosmopolis column in the Hindu Business Line, 23 March, 2018
People often pride themselves on being multilingual. In many parts of the world, it is very natural to be raised with several tongues. You can hear a wide mix of languages on the streets of major Indian cities. Young people in a small European country like the Netherlands are often fluent in English and German in addition to their mother tongue (being monolingual in Dutch doesn’t take you far, literally and figuratively). Elsewhere, like in the UK, it’s striking how few Britons speak other languages, how limited many people are to their own tongue and its reassuring comforts.
My British friends look at polyglots with envy, ruing a culture that didn’t encourage them to learn other languages.
But while being multilingual is considered a good thing, what about being multi-accented? When people are heard to speak in different accents, it is often derided as an affectation, as inauthentic. I remember one rather amusing episode 10 years ago when Steve McClaren, a British football manager working in the Netherlands, was pilloried in the UK media for speaking to the local press in English with a Dutch accent. It seems we can speak many languages, but those languages should be spoken in a single way.
Last week, I gave a reading of my fiction at a performing arts centre in Brooklyn. One of the other writers reading that evening was, like me, raised in New York City, and we chatted backstage beforehand about our upbringings and our relationship to the city. He congratulated me after my reading, but then expressed some surprise. “Are you sure you grew up in New York?” he asked.
Without realising it, I had read from my book in another accent, less American and more overtly English. I was mildly embarrassed to have to explain that, indeed, I spoke with a different accent in different contexts, that it was perhaps a curious accident of my upbringing.
The English I have always spoken at home with my family is that of my parents, their clipped and sculpted English (more English than English itself) of 1960s-era Catholic schools in Bombay and Calcutta. This very particular language accompanied me through my childhood, from Singapore to Geneva to Calcutta and then ultimately to NY. I would speak one way with my parents and brother at home, another with my American-accented friends at school. It never struck me as odd that my English lived this double-life (multiple-life, in truth, when it travelled to India and its syllables acquired a more subcontinental drift); I went to international schools, where multiple English accents jostled each other, and I wonder if I was ever even aware of that change in my voice. It couldn’t be helped.
Many years later, my English still leads a slightly schizophrenic existence. I hear my voice leaning into more slanted American vowels when I’m talking with my American wife or friends and colleagues here in the US. I speak in my parents’ English in India, even though their Catholic-school English no longer scans as “Indian” in today’s India, but rather as “foreign” accented. When I see friends from the UK — where I worked for a few years — I find myself slipping into yet another register of English, using idioms that I wouldn’t otherwise (saying “I reckon” instead of “I think,” for example) and even letting a few vowels dip in an East London slur.
Is that so odd? Accents, like languages, have their own jurisdictions. To be able to change accent credibly is to navigate different contexts, to shift frames of reference, to suggest you can belong in multiple worlds.
Switching accents is also, I suppose, a marker of privilege, a sign that you can leap over walls and cross borders that are much more difficult to transcend for others. For many people, the accent with which they speak a language is a millstone, binding them to class and status. Think, for example, of the tyrannical disciplining of the “h” in the musical My Fair Lady. If it’s bad to sound “poor,” it may be even worse to sound provincial. I know people from the American South who’ve moved to NY and worked hard to disguise where they’re from; when they return home, they report on what a comfort it is to slide back into the old habits of their tongue. Few people are more sensitive to hierarchy (imagined or otherwise) than Indians or more merciless in harping about the way others speak, whether it’s in Bengali, Malayalam, English or any other Indian language.
None of this explains why I read my fiction in an English accent — or at least in my trans-oceanic muddle — to an NY audience. I’ve realised that even though I have lived the vast majority of my life in the US and done practically all my schooling here, my fiction doesn’t have an American accent. Even this column, as I write it, has an accent that is palpably un-American to me. This fact puts me somewhat askew of the culture of the place where I live, but there’s not much I can do about it. While I can change my accent in my speech, I can’t change it in my writing, which springs from an inner monologue, from the register and timbre of an imagination. It is ironic that my truest voice is the one that isn’t really heard.