Thank you for coming, I’ll see you in HELLLLLL - love him or hate him, this compilation of Apu’s best moments in the Simpsons starts strong. Singlehandedly responsible for the misrepresentation of an entire subcontinent, his character has long been a poster boy for the demise of the Indian accent in popular culture. Yes, it’s in jest, and yes that’s a great compilation, but no, Indians neither at home nor abroad sound anything like that. Unfortunately, viral culture Trumps (wink wink) all, and the entertainment factor of the sing-song accent became a staple of what it meant to be an Indian immigrant in a Western country. Due to such representations, Indians feel compelled to change their accent.
However, recently there’s been a shift in perception. With Indian-Americans pop icons occupying the centre stage, such as Hasan Minhaj, Mindy Kaling and Aziz Ansari, the accent has somewhat been reinstated. However, Indians living in the mainland might still feel under-confident or anxious about their accent as it’s still very much different from the American way of speaking. So, when talking to someone from abroad, us Indians might tweak their accent to the slightest and talk.
An Indian comedian, Hari Kondabulu describes their rendition of the Indian accent as a “white guy doing an impression of a white guy making fun of my father”. He also made a documentary called - The Problem with Apu. It explored the effect of this caricature type representation of Indians on the Simpsons.
Indians change their accent to avoid social biases and perceptions
It’s almost a subconscious decision that we make when talking to someone who doesn't share our accent. Our t’s and d’s become a little softer and the r’s start to roll effortlessly. Why this transition? Are we afraid we can’t be understood, or is this just a side effect of the colonial hangover?
The truth may be a little more complicated. People often use accents as indicators of social class and ethnicity. According to Ze Wang, a professor at the University of Central Florida, “Accents can trigger social categorisation in a prompt, automatic, and occasionally unconscious manner.” he explains in an interview with BBC Future. In other words, as soon as we identify someone’s accent, we assign them to certain social groups and link them to the stereotypes associated with their accent. To avoid the social biases around accents, they’d rather adapt to the accent that they’re hearing on a daily basis. Often when Indians travel overseas for education, their accent gradually starts to change. Indian students often speak in an American dialect which becomes very noticeable when they return to India. However, it might be surprising to hear that this isn’t a choice that only Indians make.
Indians aren’t the only ones that change their accent
Is it fair to call Indians studying abroad sell-outs because they change their accents? For a long time, we’ve believed that it is. But it would be wrong to say that only Indians change their accent in foreign lands, it’s actually a global phenomenon.
People across the world tend to adopt the native tongue of the place in which they reside. For instance, a European living in India is likely to pick up the local dialect, and subconsciously incorporate certain changes in their accent. Howard Manns from Monash University explain this as subconscious desire to “find our tribe” and fit in. "We're adapting the accent of our immediate social group," Dr Manns told ABC Ballarat's mornings' program.
Dr Manns explains that as a resident of Australia but originally from America, he had an innate need to fit in with those around him and that this is because of our ‘subconscious awareness that authenticity matters’. Accents are often considered to be a part of ethnic authenticity, so if one lives in Britain and uses British slang and pronunciation, they’re viewed as more authentically British compared to a French person that refuses to incorporate any British lingo in their communication.
Why do people create social categories and assumptions based on accents?
Throughout pop culture and history, people have given certain accents the centre stage while others were made fun of. The West has continuously created the perception of Asian accents being funny and they have been ridiculed for entertainment purposes. According to BBC Future, as children grow up they become more aware of the stereotypes attached to different accents. So, for the children whose native accents are being ridiculed, they may look up to other ‘cooler’ accents and become conscious of their own.
In the context of the UK, RP English was said to have sounded posh and powerful. However, people who speak Cockney English, the accent of the working-class, experienced prejudice. Similarly, in the Indian context, since Westerners have ridiculed the accent and made fun of it for its pronunciations, people don’t take Indians seriously. A study conducted by Ze Wang, a professor at the University of Central Florida showed that US participants tended to trust British accents more than Indian accents. “People often have a negative bias toward non-standard accents, particularly those with disadvantaged and low-prestige minority groups,” she explains. In her study, she also found that people perceived those with Mexican or Greek accents as less intelligent or professional than those who speak standard US English.
We don’t need to let the biases created by society govern us
These biases may explain why some Indians change their accents to imitate their western counterparts. But we need to remember that accents are a way of speaking and don’t inherently hold any characteristics in them. A person with a British accent is not naturally more intellectual than a person with an Italian accent. We have given meaning to accents, we’re the ones that have labelled the British accent as ‘sexy’ and a heavily vernacular accent while speaking English, ‘embarrassing’. So, instead of letting these biases taint our interactions, we can learn to listen to each other. And embrace the variations in each other's accents.