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Transportation of tongues with territory

You can tell which ‘phoren’ country a desi has been to, based on his English ‘taan’

Accents are a funny business. If you are an Indian, an urban, ‘middle-class’ Indian, then chances are that you are at least bilingual, if not tri- or quadrilingual. In the north, or the east-north-west axis, you would speak your own language — Marathi, Gujarati, Odia or Bengali — plus Hindi; or you would speak your own dialect of Hindi-Hindustani, plus a certain kind of mainstream ‘Hindi’. If you’re ‘peninsular’, meaning of the south, then chances are you speak or understand at least two of the big southern Indian tongues or have some grasp of one that’s not your mother tongue. All this is of course not including whichever kind of Indian English you employ. If you’re from the south but living in the north, or vice versa, you will likely have an even more interesting mix of languages. Each language you speak also influences the others that you possess. Likewise, the accents and stresses of the different languages into which you’ve been thrown also criss-cross over your tongue.

A quadrilingual’s quandary

For instance, I grew up in Calcutta in the 1960s, in a Gujarati family of a certain cultural background. So, my Gujarati is very different from the language one hears, say, from the current Gujarati political leaders. The first immersion in Hindi was via Bihari working-class people in the street outside. Then there were the Bengalis and all the different sorts of Bangla, which varied according to class and region, but came to me as one surrounding mass of vowels and consonants. English was always a distant, prickly fourth language till a switch flicked around the age of eight and it leapfrogged up the hierarchy. But, even then, my reading English — of books and comics by British and American authors, the one I heard in my head — was very different from my spoken English, which I used to communicate to parents, teachers and friends. It was only when I shifted to a boarding school in Rajasthan, in the 1970s (the time also matters, as we know people speak differently down the ages), that I realised my ‘regionality’. “Oy Joshi, idiot! Why do you speak English like a Bong, ya? You’re a Gujju, no?,” and “Yuck! That’s not Hindi you’re speaking, that’s Bihari!” The hegemony of a certain Punjabi-Delhi Hindi, which also enveloped the English accent, meant that I had to relearn the two languages that I had taken for granted.

If people laughed at my accent, I too laughed at theirs. Wherefore, my expulsion, one day, from English literature class, where Shakespeare was being taught to us by a large bear of a mona-Sardar who we shall call Mr. B. You have to imagine a hot day in April, and Mr. B’s English accent and tone as the ones universally deployed by Punjabi military officers above Colonel rank on both sides of the India-Pakistan border: “So! Rommyo says to Julyutt! Ai-luvv-yu! And Julyutt, she says where-fore are you Rommyo!?! And Rommyo says — you! You boy, there! Why are you lauffing, hain? Bloody geddout of my class! Three days PD!” Along with the Punishment Drill, the gift I received that day is what I call my Punj-Briggdear-sahab accent; I have run versions of this past Pakistanis familiar with their military people and got back the same guffaws of recognition as on this side of the fence.

That period in Rajasthan was just the first one away from the home base of familiar Calcutta accents. Soon, I would be introduced to other accent families in parts of the world that were further away, ones which would further complicate the push and pull of language in my head.

Change in tone

The reason I remembered all this was because of another phenomenon I notice when I travel between India and the West. Just as you can often tell where a desi is from, depending on how he speaks his English, you can also tell where in the phoren a desi has been based on his English taan. You’ll have someone who speaks perfect, advanced ‘Indian, neutral’ English; but the moment he lands in London, his accent will change just so, acquiring a sub, or faux, British burr on the consonants, (that’s ‘thherible’ they’ll say, instead of our desi hard ‘tteribull’) or, landing in New York, his mouth will get a molluscing of the north American ‘rr’s (‘howaarrryuh?’). I even know a long-term NRI living in France whose vocabulary and sentence construction has become Frenchified, though mercifully not his English accent (‘the transportations of that thought are abominable’).

Arriving in London recently, I found myself answering the immigration officer’s questions with one ear tuned to the next couple of desks. At one, an officer of South Asian descent was speaking in clear Charotari Gujarati to an old, shifty looking couple from Ahmedabad: “Sir, you haven’t answered even one of my questions truthfully till now,” she said firmly. “How can I believe this is your daughter you are coming to live with?”

At another desk was a Bengali gent who had developed the faux-sub Brit consonants already described. “Auxphurd! Yess, I am going to Auxphurd!” Each time, I could hear him doing a strikethrough of the classic Bong ‘Oxphawrd’. As I eavesdropped, I wondered what redactions and additions someone else would hear in my voice as I explained the reasons for my visit to the officer with the sonorous Jamaican-London accent.

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Printable version | Jul 10, 2020 9:52:18 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/columns/transportation-of-tongues-with-territory/article18517523.ece

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