Where the stress falls


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.

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.

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