The ‘neutral’ Indian accent: We have been guilty of a kind of verbal savarnitis

For the longest time, People Like Me have operated within a verbal currency of making fun of those who are differently Englished

March 31, 2018 04:36 pm | Updated 04:36 pm IST

Vector art illustration.

Vector art illustration.

I laugh at English. Meaning, I laugh all the time at people speaking English. Just as the earth is, freakily, just the correct distance from the sun that allows life to prosper, the English I learnt and the accent I developed — which I call ‘Neutral Indian’ — was the one oddball tongue that seemed to lord it over every other English accent. So I, and people who speak more or less like me, constantly laugh at others speaking English.

We laugh at the Americans and all the American accents; we laugh at the Filipinos, Germans and so many others who speak different sub-Merricanese; we laugh at the different varieties of European English (especially the French, Italian and Russian accents), we laugh at the Aussies, Kiwis and South Africans (who doesn’t?); we laugh at the different African and the Chinese and Japanese accents; as for the Arabs and Iranians, forget it, they’re pure comedy gold; we can’t help but find all the English accents spoken by the British themselves stomach-hurtingly hilarious, talk about a gift that keeps giving; we obviously have as our basic laugh-platform the different desi accents (I toh even think and dream sometimes in Benglish, Punjlish or Gujlish, and I know I’m not alone); and while the entire nation laughs at Doorknob Go-slammy, us, hell, we even laugh at Shashi Tharoor.

Different age, different lingo

To be fair to myself, I also laugh at the different kinds of English I’ve spoken at different stages of my life, and I have friends with far superior grammar and pronunciation who continue to laugh at my English while correcting me.

However, this doesn’t stop us from forming this medium-sized cabal (I reckon there’s only about a hundred thousand of us) that collects and dissects different English accents and usages, that relishes examining some twist of a word or sentence formation like oenophiles gargling wines. The word ‘forming’ is actually misleading in this context because this cabal exists without ever having been consciously formed, and nor is there any way that all the members know each other. Like some kind of perverse Freemason’s guild, we exist like a widely spread, not-so-secret society. We know we’ve come across a fellow member when we hear them speak; we know we’re in cabal-company when someone speaks idiomatic Indian Neutral and you can’t quite catch where in India they’re from, or maybe only a faint trace of a Southy, Bombayite, Northern or Bong accent. The speech identifies the speakist as someone who was probably born in urban India between 1952 and 1982, who may not have been wealthy (in fact was probably not wealthy, because the Indian rich are mostly too lazy to learn to speak English properly, and also because they haven’t really needed to learn any language except that of money) but had access to a ‘good’ English-medium education, was exposed at a formative age to Enid Blyton, P.G. Wodehouse and Ian Fleming, and later to some better world literature, but again in English.

Having been dunked in a vat of Indlish-English early, this person has then spent a lot of their time with other English-speakers, either here or abroad; and their work too most likely involves frequent use of the language.

A plummy touch

The earlier cut-off date, 1952, is a soft one, movable by a few years, because older desis tend to speak a more Angrezi English, a touch more plummy and correct, with fewer Americanisms, with desi words having to fight a wee bit to find elbow room at the table of their speech.

The aforementioned Shashi T is a good-ish example: even though he was born in 1956, ST speaks like (he would say ‘as though’) he was born in 1936, in a room where a radio was relaying a Tory party debate between Churchill and Halifax. The later cut-off date is a bit more firm: people who hit their teenage while watching foreign television shows, and who were then exposed to computers and mobile phones before their wires had completely joined up, speak a different, more amorphously international Computerese-English.

For the longest time, People Like Me have operated within a verbal currency of making fun of those who are differently Englished. We PLMs have been undeniably guilty of a language casteism, a kind of verbal savarnitis, which holds any desi who doesn’t speak like us to be somehow inferior and worthy of derision and mockery.

As with any ku-sanskar , the training begins by subjecting the intended convert to ritual humiliation. So, whether in your own family, or in a friends’ group or school cohort, the seniors laugh at your attempts at speaking the language. ‘What did you say? Did you just say Wed-anus-day?? Are you an ex-test batsman from Bombay commenting on cricket? It’s Wenzzday, you idiot, the d is silent!’

Inglish Vinglish

Then, once the support wheels are taken off, you are encouraged to laugh along with the group at the ‘lokes’ or the ‘locals’; the targets of this derision could also include your family and parents, ‘Haww, my mother says Penelope like envelope…’

You then grow up with this false sense of achievement-cum-entitlement — you may not be rich, but at least you can speak English properly. This ridiculous pride then allows you to spit upwards while pissing down, yaniki you laugh at those richer and more powerful than you, while sneering at those who are far less fortunate, all because of this Inglish-vinglish.

Of late, though, PLMs have come up against a problem, though the challenge is not confined to those born in the 30-year period defined above. A typical scenario is when you approach a counter where a young person in a uniform and a cap is selling something, or handling some aspect of something you’ve bought, a phone connection, a plane ticket, a hamburger.

They start speaking to you in somewhat rudimentary and clumsy English, you reply in whatever non-English Indian language you think they speak better, they flinch slightly but continue in their English. A variation of this can also happen over the phone, when you can sense the person at the call-centre is not at their most comfortable in English.

Overriding stunt

You now have a choice: you can either override the other person and continue to display your command of Hindi, Bangla, Tamil, whatever, or you can speak condescendingly, slowly enunciating your words, exactly as Brit and American counter-people do to us when we’re over there and they think we can’t speak their language, or you can speak in your normal English. I now always choose the third option and I usually don’t carry back nuggets of the youngster’s mis-speech to share with my friends.

There is a whole new India coalescing around us, and it’s not the country fantasised about by the powers that be. The young woman or man you face across the counter or on the phone has worked very hard to climb and stay balanced on the tight-rope of a difficult language. They have done this in the hope of bettering their prospects and there is nothing inherently funny about their mistakes, stumbles or accents.

There is also another kind of English usage at which I don’t laugh. More and more one finds that people whose first language is not English nevertheless use it quite fearlessly to make their points in the social or political field.

Again, this is not some peacocking conceit, these are attempts at communicating issues as quickly, articulately and effectively as possible, and reproducing the Queens’, or laconic Merricanese or fluent Neutral-Indian is not part of the speaker’s concerns.

To find fault or laugh at these English deployments would be stupid and elitist, it would be privileging your need to find cheap humour over the serious content of what someone is trying to convey. Does this mean I no longer laugh at English or people speaking it? Not at all.

When overcome by the need to laugh at the language, I just switch on the TV and watch particular Indian anchors on the English channels, or watch the English-language spokesmen for political parties, or I get a hit of Donald Trump or one of his ghastly henchpeople, or I just find a clip of Boris Johnson. After listening to one of these characters maul the language the new, rough Englishes coming out of our country sound like pure music.

The columnist and filmmaker is author of The Last Jet-Engine Laugh and Poriborton: An Election Diary . He edited Electric Feather: The Tranquebar Book of Erotic Stories and was featured in Granta .

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