One of my earliest memories of being in the US is that of a Frenchman speaking English. He later became a good friend, and inside my head I can still turn on the soundtrack of his voice — the vowels being short or long in unexpected places, the diphthongs, consonants and stresses being “off,” the rising voice at the end of the sentence, the works. I could call that my introduction to accents, but I think that you really get the concept of an accent when you run into a second French person, and lo and behold, they speak English with all the exact same quirks as the first French person.
I could also argue that when one grows up in India, one learns the concept of an accent at a very young age. We had a Bengali teacher at school who would say “oollen” for “woollen” and we would die of laughter and imitate her behind her back. Caricature South Indians would show up on television programs speaking English with caricature accents. A girl once heard me speak in Hindi and immediately asked if I was a native speaker of Marathi. Even among Marathi speakers it was common to make fun of the accents of subgroups. I suppose when a country’s population is diverse enough that the government has to take on the responsibility to develop 22 languages, and the country also has the severe social stratification that India does, you are just swimming in languages, dialects and accents whether or not you realize it or not.
But I think it is fair to say that I really started enjoying accents once I came to the US and started to interact with people from all over the world. Even today, when I am in a meeting with people from different countries (it was Spain, Italy, Romania and Iran the other day, along with the obligatory Americans, of course), I find myself periodically distracted by a pronunciation or a grammatical construction that I find odd or cute. If there are people from different parts of India (it was Bangalore, Kerala, Pune and South Bombay during that one project), I invariably have to hold in giggles because I have a lot of past experience with Indians making fun of each other’s accents. And there was an Englishman with a posh accent the other day who, I suspect, won the room over just with his perfectly modulated tone.
This is the part where it gets interesting though. Over time, there is a stereotyping that one starts to attach with accents. When I hear an Eastern European accent, I automatically expect the person to be direct, and I also expect to get along with them. When I hear an Iranian accent, I expect them to be friendly and to have good social skills. When I hear an English accent, especially a non-posh one, I expect them to be self-deprecatory people, who are likely to talk to me about cricket and Sachin Tendulkar. This is not a perfect algorithm, of course, and you do meet exceptions every so often, but the people I meet have a relatively narrow cross-section of educational and professional backgrounds, and within this, a lot of stereotypes hold up remarkably well.
To the extent that a blanket statement is possible, most people I run into are comfortable with their accents, but not 100% of the time. They sometimes express the wish that they, or their children, “spoke English well,” by which they are more likely to mean “sounded like Americans,” as much as “had better grammar or vocabulary.” When you have an accent that is not American, it gives away the fact that you grew up elsewhere. When your appearance gives away the fact that you did not come on the Mayflower, the next best thing is to try to assimilate vocally. (This is not to claim that people for whom appearance is not an issue do not feel the same way, but I do suspect that looking “different” adds to the pressure to conform in other ways.)
Second generation kids are particularly interesting to listen to. Many of them unconsciously develop a few different brands of spoken English. I have known second generation Indians to have a perfectly American accent, which is their most comfortable speech pattern, a semi-American accent that they use with each other, yet another accent to talk to their parents in, and a very Indian accent that thay may switch on when they visit India. (As a bonus, they can also ham it up for comic effect in the last case.) These kids are vocal chameleons, gliding effortlessly across their spectrum of identities, always assimilating perfectly wherever they are.
In some countries, India and England being good examples, accents are also markers of social class, and therefore basis for prejudice. In England especially, this topic seems to be an ever-lasting source of discussion, navel-gazing and articles. (Or at least that’s what this Guardian reader has concluded over the years. Google provides the evidence.) In India, at the very least I can vouch for Marathi accents playing the same role — for instance, people who make the soft N sound instead of the hard N sound (for words like loNi (butter) or paaNi (water)) get marked as being from a certain social class, irrespective of their qualifications or wealth.
In this sense, accents are baggage that we all carry around, a part of our identity that is very difficult to hide, and which others may react to in unpredictable or undesirable ways. A reaction of “cute” can be patronizing but otherwise harmless, but far more negative reactions are possible too. This topic is, of course, the main theme of G. B. Shaw’s Pygmalion, and a century after the play was written, some things are still of interest. We have Prof. Higgins claiming, “Men begin in Kentish Town with 80 pounds a year, and end in Park Lane with a hundred thousand. They want to drop Kentish Town; but they give themselves away every time they open their mouths.” What the play also tells us is that changing the way you speak is dangerous, if it does not go hand in hand with changing your social class, whatever that knotty concept entails. You cannot speak posh and be a flower girl, you cannot speak posh and not have a ready source of income. (Incidentally, I reviewed a performance of Pygmalion earlier this year.)
Today however, for people with strong professional qualifications who are changing countries for work, the issues of social class are not relevant. In fact, there is a gradual increase in the tendency to hold on to one’s native culture, seen most evidently in Asian immigrants today giving their children traditional Asian names, whereas a few decades ago they would have picked an American name. And although I have yet to figure out how to react to second generation Indians pronouncing (mispronouncing?) their own Indian names (proper nouns!) with American accents, I can’t help but wonder if that isn’t perhaps the balance point between assimilation into a new culture and holding on to the native one. (I also do my part by occasionally correcting Americans on the pronunciation of Indian names, including my own, and a lot of them enjoy my special attention. Or at least pretend to!)
Elsewhere too, accents are on display more and more, and for a variety of reasons, the most common being to appear inclusive and to add something interesting or different. (The accent as an accent!) Television programs in the US often feature a Mexican accent, or a British one. British programs will feature regional as well as international accents. The BBC has more and more presenters with accents as opposed to presenters with cut glass Received Pronunciation. And Radiolab in the US, with its emphasis on having a unique soundscape, almost seems to deliberately seek out interesting accents whenever it has to find a scientist to interview.
I suppose clarity of speech matters more than accents at the end of the day, and no amount of interesting accents are a substitute for it. But there is absolutely no need for everyone to speak in the same way. (Or even to speak in a way that sounds as if it is from nowhere and everywhere all at once. Mid-Atlantic accent, I am looking at you. You sound fine, but why do you exist?) It’s okay if the listener needs to do a little bit of extra work to follow along when confronted with a new accent. It keeps their ears and brain extra sharp. And I, for one, actively enjoy listening to all accents, familiar and unfamiliar.
To go back to Pygmalion, Higgins claims that “You can spot an Irishman or a Yorkshireman by his brogue. I can place any man within six miles. I can place him within two miles in London. Sometimes within two streets.” The idea that all this subtle variation that the trained ear can hear is produced by a tiny 2-inch larynx (and the brain, of course) is fascinating to me. And the actual hearing of all those accents is as much fun as listening to a good, complex song. Even with all the baggage they carry, accents still remain music to my ears.
 The issue of how to pronounce one’s own name reminds me of an interesting story from the wiki page of Lakshmi Singh, the NPR newsreader. In India, the name is pronounced LUCK-shmee, but her way is to say LACK-shmee. This apparently “dismayed” some South Asians, but she is, in fact, following the pronunciation from her native country, which is Trinidad in the Caribbean, and not something in South Asia! “Some of our friends in the South Asian community have expressed their dismay with the pronunciation of my name. But I have not heard any complaints specifically from South Asian residents of the Caribbean (such as Trinidad, where my father was born and Lakshmi is pronounced LACK-shmee).” Don’t you just love the beautiful, complex world we live in?!