Indian English Accent Extravaganza!

Monday, June 27, 2011
Naseeruddin Shah’s deep purr, Anita Desai’s refined calm, Dharmesh Darshan’s effeminate exuberance… these are some of the voices heard in my latest extravaganza project which turns from the subject of dance to the world of Indian English Accents!

Why accents say ye?  Well my latest YouTube obsession has been watching people try to reproduce various global accents in English.  Given my interest in  India, I of course have noticed the relative lack of South Asian accents, and when such accents do make an appearance they are almost always some variation of Apu from The Simpsons.  YouTube user misscupcake1 once asked for examples of new accents to try so in my nerdiness I sent her a video of Preity Zinta as a sort of representation of a more “posh” Indian accent.  Unfortunately, the result was this!  And then there’s this very endearing chick xooropa who also uploads lots of funny accents including her Indian imitation which is a notch better than the previous but still in silly territory.  I think part of the blame is that many folks here in the US have never heard varied Indian accents and even when they do they cannot pin down what they are hearing.

As I kept watching these pitiful attempts at the Indian accent, this grandiose idea hit me: why not make a video mashup (an extravaganza!) that shows the wide range of real Indian English accents!

My one problem in undertaking the extravaganza adventure was, of course, that I can’t identify which accents are from where, so I enlisted the help of rameshram to answer my relentless barrage of “what accent is this!!” emails and solicit name suggestions.  His help has been greatly appreciated and I couldn’t have done the project with him.

I now present the finished product!  It begins with a quick run-through of all the states represented in the video (I cannot stop giggling at the awesomeness of the visuals + music) and then begins the short clips of accents with notation underneath identifying the language, special characteristics, and state (in parentheses).  The accents are presented in a clockwise tour around India starting with Maharashtra, and at the end of the video I throw in some non-Indian South Asian accents just for fun.  Key point: Accents are not meant to be representative but are just examples from each area.  More discussion below.



What started out as a project to enlighten others ended up completely fascinating me.  I’m completely mystified by many of the accents because I just cannot verbalize their unique characteristics.  The Delhi and Northeastern (Sikkim and Mizoram) accents are the only ones I can clearly pick out of the bunch, and I’m absolutely lost when listening to the most of the Southern accents (Tamil, Telugu, and Malayalam).  I’ve learned how Indian accents vary depending on whether the person lived in a rural area or a city, was educated in a convent school or a public school, what language was spoken primarily in the home, and a host of other factors.  My “extravaganza” is really just a sampling because I was limited to who I could find clear, good-quality videos of speaking in English (much harder than it sounds!), and of course there are countless other accents not represented.  In addition, the people I’ve chosen in the video may just have a “slight” accent or a more “urban,” cosmopolitan version of an accent.  Or they may not even be from the area the accent originated but they have that accent nonetheless (or I’m trusting what I’ve been told :)).  This accent business is tricky though; I expect some will disagree with how some accents are classified in the video.

The video does seem to have less representation of what I would term the more stereotypical “sing songy” Indian accents.  You know, the accents that have more regional characteristics, perhaps unaspirated d’s and t’s, such as Kanimozhi’s Tamil accent or Nikhil Advani’s Sindhi accent.  These accents are what I imagine many Americans would quickly identify as a classic “Indian” accent.  The more “refined” accents with less “regional characteristics” are what really confuse the ignorant, such as Sunil Mittal’s Marwari accent or Sharmila Tagore’s Bengali accent.

A few clips in the video were chosen because of their charming backstory.  For example, the second clip of the Dalai Lama has him playfully answering the user-submitted question “have you ever worn trousers,” and Juhi Chawla’s clips come from an interview in which she was so contagiously joyous I just had to bring her back for an encore!

Comments welcome; which accents do you particularly enjoy?  Do you have other examples to share?  Disagree with any classifications?

For reference, here’s a list of all the people and accents in the video:

Amol Palekar – Marathi (Maharashtra)
Girish Karnad – Marathi, Mumbai (Maharashtra)
Kajol – Hindi, Mumbai Urban (Maharashtra)
Siddharth Trivedi – Gujarati (Gujarat)
Kishore Biyani – Gujarati (Gujarat)
Sunil Mittal – Marwari Ethnic (Rajasthan)
Juhi Chawla – Punjabi, Urban (Punjab)
Manmohan Singh – Punjabi, Sikh (Punjab)
Omar Abdullah – Kashmiri (Jammu and Kashmir)
Om Puri – Punjabi, Jat (Haryana)
Aamir Khan – Hindi, Delhi (Delhi)
Kajal Agarwal – Hindi, Delhi
Preity Zinta – Hindi, Delhi – “Military Brat” (Delhi)
Naseeruddin Shah – Hindi, UP Urban (Uttar Pradesh)
Anita Desai – Hindi, UP Urban (Uttar Pradesh)
Irrfan Khan – Bihari-Bengali (Bihar/West Bengal)
Dibakar Banerjee – Bengali (West Bengal)
Sharmila Tagore – Bengali, Urban (West Bengal)
Danny Denzongpa – Sikkim (Sikkim)
Lal Thanhawla – Mizo (Mizoram)
Ram Gopal Varma – Telugu (Andhra Pradesh)
Rajnesh Domalpalli - Telugu (Andhra Pradesh)
Vikram – Tamil (Tamil Nadu)
Kanimozhi – Tamil (Tamil Nadu)
Prithviraj – Malayalam (Kerala)
Adoor Gopalakrishnan – Malayalam (Kerala)
Girish Kasaravalli – Kannada (Karnataka)
Remo Fernandes – Goan (Goa)
Dharmesh Darshan – Goan (Goa)
Ratan Tata – Parsi Ethnic Group
Nikhil Advani – Sindhi Ethnic Group
Prannoy Roy – “News Anchor”
Shyam Benegal – “City Indian”
Harsha Bhogle – “Generic Indian”
Salman Rushdie – “British Indian”
Imran Khan – Pakistan
Dalai Lama – Tibet (and in Dharamsala, Himalchal Pradesh, India)
Rookmangud Katawal – Nepal
Aung San Suu Kyi – Burma (Burmese-Indian)
Sanath Jayasuriya – Sri Lanka

14 comments:

  1. Thank you for another amazing compilation. I think I'm starting to pick up on some of the distinct parts of the Malayalam accent from hearing English spoken in Malayalam films (thanks for the pretty pictures of Prithviraj.) It was fascinating to hear Kajal Agarwal's actual voice.

    Also, that full Juhi interview is so adorable, I commend you for limiting yourself to just two clips.

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  2. Interesting post concept... Is it really true that most people in the U.S. have not heard varied Indian accents? Speaking for myself, having spent most of my life in different parts of New York City, I'm pretty sure I've heard them all. :) But pinning them down by region is another matter - I guess the region of origin doesn't stand out so much when you find people from most of the different regions living in the same neighborhood(s)... Then it helps to think about some of the famous people we know of :)...

    A little over a year ago, I briefly spoke to a woman on line in the Elmhurst, Queens branch of the New York Public Library, and I almost wanted to say to her, "I know we're you're from - you're from Kerala!" And the reason had nothing to do with film stars (though I do have a few favorite actresses from Kerala ;) )... The reason is that she sounded just like Arundhati Roy. And I love listening to Arundhati Roy!

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gAXXtcCLgyQ
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GGWz_MW_qBc

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  3. That was really fantastic!

    I'm American but generally don't have any trouble distinguishing between northern and southern accents in English because I've lived with so many Indian roommates from all over the country.

    I think in the video the accent that really stood out the most to me was Ratan Tata's. There was just something very different about his speech.

    And of course the Nepali accent was recognizable (not that I knew it was Nepali, but that it appeared to be markedly different from the rest in some way).

    (Juhi. is. adorable.)

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  4. This is such an interesting, thoughtful thing you've put together.

    Because of the intersection of family background, education and regional variation, it's really hard to pin down most of these accents as anything more than a general upper middle class to upper class Indian accent.

    Though I will say, in that interview with Riz Khan, Preity's accent was definitely a bit more American or British (depending on your POV) than normal. That's a natural result of the exposure to American culture someone like her has.

    Naseer's accent, on the other hand, stays relatively stable. I think most younger Indians has such transient lives and such diverse influences, their accents will change constantly over their lifetimes.

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  5. Wow!!! Awesome girl! Major props to you for putting it together!!

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  6. What a fantastic job you did here! You're right - this is a much-needed correction to that stereotyped accent people do so badly. I think most Americans don't recognize other languages and accents well in general (even other English-speaking nations); we just don't hear them much in our daily lives after all. (But then, Brit actors often garble American regional accents, too.)

    I lived in India for a year in Karnataka and a year in Delhi when I was much younger, and still don't have any trouble distinguishing between Northern, Southern, Bengali, urban or British and rural-English but beyond that I've lost the ear. I used to recognize the scripts of just about every language and still picture a rounded Kannada script when I hear a lovely rounded Mysore accent, for example.

    Would love to see another one of these from you just one the different regions (more Southie please!) but I can see it's a lot of work to do this. I'd like to add a link and comment to your post to one I did a while back in my blog, on "In Praise of Indian English" (http://mypersonalblogccm.blogspot.com/2010/06/new-season-new-look-new-language.html). It would be very nice to have your collection of accents there, to round it out!

    After being away from India for a long time (but having a few Indian friends from different regions in the meantime) I discovered the availability of Bollywood films and have gotten a bit of re-education in accents -- a lot of the humor in the films revolves around regional stereotypes.

    Loved the Juhi "bonus" at the end! Big smile! I always enjoy your blog, though I don't comment much.

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  7. Dustdevil – wow, speediest commenter in the west! :) It’s amusing to me that Kajal Agarwal has been such a hit in Telugu films and obviously has to have her voice dubbed, but as we know this is quite common with actresses in the south. I do hope you share with me sometime the distinct aspects of the Malayalam accent because I still can’t quite figure out what I’m hearing differently. I’m so happy you saw Juhi’s full interview! Doesn’t she make you smile beginning to end? :)

    Richard – My comment about many in the US having not heard varied Indian accents comes from my experience of living in the intermountain west and it’s relative lack of diversity compared to a place like NYC and extrapolating that assumption to most of the inner United States (and to ignorant folks in the big, multiethnic cities). My video is sort of aimed at folks like my dear mother who just can’t quite get comfortable with multiculturalism and still stereotype Indians and their accents (I will be sending her the video to get her reaction, hehe). I feel like most folks are like this in the US (at least the stereotyping part) unless they have an interest in other cultures. Though perhaps this will change as Indians become more and more part of US pop culture and TV shows. I think my and your understanding of Indian accents is affected by our interest in India- we simply pay more attention to all things Indian so naturally we’re more informed. I can only imagine how many Indian accents you hear in NYC! How nice to hear Arundhati Roy’s accent- thank you for sharing. I couldn’t have identified it as Malayalee without your comment! I’m still hopeless at this point with southern accents…

    Bombay Talkies – I’m impressed that you can distinguish northern and southern; I’m still working on it! Yes, Mr. Tata’s accent is quite unique isn’t it; from what I understand, the Parsi accent sounds quite distinctly westernized/european compared to most accents from India. On top of that he has a very distinct voice in general conflating things a bit. I’m so happy everyone is with me on the Juhi adorableness overload! :)

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  8. Leaf – That’s very interesting that you heard most of the accents as general higher class accents. I find the varied responses I’ve gotten quite fascinating. Do you think that how we “hear” accents depends on how close we are to them in everyday life? Do Indians hear certain Indian accents differently than say a whitebread person in the US? Interesting topic for future research. Though I did sense that most of the accents I had selected were higher class ones, which is probably a byproduct of choosing mostly celebrities and politicians and businessman. There were some interviews I found of Chennai students on NDTV that had really thick accents http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4RbuPxeghd4&t=200s , but I decided to stick with my original selection. I just love Preity’s accent, and always have. And don’t get me started on Naseer’s vewy sexy accent. :) But that’s a very interesting point about how accents can change over one’s lifetime. I’ve often heard this criticism of Aishwarya Rai and how her accent varies in interviews depending on where she is.

    Nicki – Hey girl! Thanks for the major props! I know you know how difficult these little video things are to put together. :)

    Christine – I agree that most Americans have difficulty recognizing other accents. I think the accents of Great Britain are a perfect example considering some of the period movies Hollywood has made set in varied European countries with the actors having what Americans think is a “standard” “British” accent as if there was such a thing. I would love to do another video but the hard part is finding names of folks that have certain accents- if you have any suggestions do send them my way. I would especially love to do a video with more rural/lower class accents, but these are much harder to find good quality video of (and to have them speaking in English!). Happy to see that you linked to my post/video on your blog post, which itself is very fascinating and I will be looking more into some of the things you listed (the #IndianEnglish Twitter hashtag sounds fun!). Thanks for your support of my blog. :)

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  9. Minai,

    Awesome job conceptualizing and putting this together!

    like I told you, I think how we perceive "slight" accents can be our personal method of stereotyping the people speaking them. having said that there is a (foreign) language basis for spotting an english accent of a non native speaker, and that does get overlaid by other complex influences such as class and migration.

    because language and usage is fluid and constantly changing, people DO tend to resist being"classified" into an invariant (though pretty objective) "type" . Accent spotting is fun, though.

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  10. I guess it didn't occur to me while we put this video together that there was more than pure good fun in accent spotting.

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  11. rameshram - thank you for all of your help and patience! :) you make some good cautionary points, and I think that personal biases can affect how we hear certain accents (or rather how we categorize them). The way I listen to the accents is purely linguistic - I try to notice only how the words are formed and differ from one accent to the next. Certainly the topic of how we cast judgment on a person due to their accent is a much-studied topic I would love to research more.

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  12. Accents are natural part of spoken languages. It is important to realize that no accent is better than another. It should also be stressed that accents are not a speech or language disorder. The term 'accent' describes the combination of pitch, stresses and rhythm of someone's speech, as well as how they pronounce all their vowels and consonants.An accent is the way you speak.An accent can often reveal a person's cultural background and should be considered only as a difference in how one pronounces words within a shared community.

    http://www.neutralaccent.com

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  13. wow well done on this detailed post, your bollywood or should i say India deewana is on another level lol. I really enjoyed this post, I would have liked to know what your thoughts were on Amitabh's accent as his spoken English sounds very foreign but yet not one i can pin down to any particular country. And then there's Rekha also watch her in this video below, she sounds like some American NRI
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Lkrwk0YJoq4

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  14. bollywooddeewana - hi there! Glad you enjoyed the post and the video. Amitabh's accent is very interesting isn't it - to me he sounds closer to British English in general while his t's sound more Indian. I can't quite place Rekha's accent either though I can definitely hear Indian markers. I wonder where they went to school growing up. :) Thanks for sharing!

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