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You say ____, I say _____

By on Apr 4, 2011 in Food For Thought | 21 comments

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(Request to my readers, especially my subscribers: There’s a question right at the end of this post which I’d appreciate if you could answer. Reading the post will help explain the context but perhaps not everyone among you has time, so I wanted to flag the question for your attention in the beginning.)

Travelling around and living in different places makes you notice certain things about a place fairly quickly. One of the first things you notice is – this is no surprise – is the way people speak. However, it takes a few months to get the idiosyncrasies down pat.

When I first went to the UK, many other Indian students hit the ground running with a ‘fake’ accent. (I, personally, have never been able to do that.) And you know what? The reason people do this, to an extent, is justified. What I have learnt through numerous interactions with British, American, Canadian – ‘Western’ friends, if you will – is that a fair number of them genuinely have a hard time understanding the Indian accent. Some tell me they may understand only three-quarters of what a person with an Indian accent, and then use context to fill in the rest.

Bet it’s the same with a majority of Indians when they watch American movies / television shows. You’ll notice how theatrical releases of films in India almost never have subtitles as is standard in practically every other country where English is not a native language, but cinemas in India cater to an upmarket or an aspirational crowd. On satellite TV movie channels, on the other hand, captioning has been so popular that all channels quickly adopted it and saw a rise in viewership. I have friends with an impeccable command over written English, yet are completely lost without subtitles when listening. An explanation offered for this is that “Westerners speak too fast” but on the other side of the pond, er, ocean, they think the  exact opposite! This is probably just a case of ‘feeling’ that someone is speaking fast because you cannot catch what they are saying. Try learning a new language and you’ll always feel that native speakers speak ‘too fast’.

It can get much worse than that. I encountered situations in the UK, try as hard as they might, people couldn’t understand what I was saying. This goes both ways. For a quick headcount, how many of you can understand what comedian Kevin Bridges is saying in this video from Live at the Apollo roadshow?

(The Welsh and the Scottish accents are notoriously hard to understand, even among native English speakers from England. Shed a silent tear for me – my two roommates last semester were both Scots.)

This reminds me of a funny anecdote from first year at university. We (my batchmates and I) used to work together in the computing labs on our software engineering assignments and ended up discussions possible solutions with each other. Now, the Indian way of pronouncing ‘arrays’ is ‘ah-rays’, while the British way of pronouncing it is ‘uh-rays’. By the end of the year, I was pronouncing it ‘uh-rays’ and my English friend – a legit scouse – was saying it the Indian way!

I had an interesting debate with my current roommate (who’s from Canada) this semester. We were trying to solve a physics question when I used the trigonometrical abbreviation ‘cos’. He laughed and said the correct pronunciation is like in ‘cosine’ with the ‘-ine’ ending chopped off; I disagreed and said it’s like in the ending of ‘because’. We made a bet; the hard part came when trying to prove ourselves right. No matter how much we searched on YouTube for lectures on trigonometry (video channels such as MIT OpenCourseWare etc), none of the speakers used ‘cos’ as an abbreviation! That’s another thing I learnt that day – how pervasive the use of the full form ‘cosine’, ‘tangent’, ‘cosecant’ et al is in American English.

I eventually posted the pronunciation of ‘cos’ question on English Language & Usage Stack Exchange. Responses from the forum posters confirmed my suspicion that mine was the British English pronunciation while my roommate’s was the American / Canadian English pronunciation. As an aside, our pronunciation of hyperbolic functions is miles apart too – he pronounces ‘sinh’ similar to ‘cinch’ while I pronounce it as ‘shine’, and so on for the other functions.

But enough of maths for now. No matter how well-read you are, and regardless of whether you are a native speaker of English language or not, there will always be words whose pronunciation trips you. One common scenario is when you read a word long before you learn the correct pronunciation through real-life usage – there’s an entirely fascinating thread on EL&U StackExchange (again) on words that are said entirely unlike how they are written. Go through those pages and I’m certain you’ll discover a clutch of words you have been speaking the wrong way all this while!

Word choice is also a curiosity you notice when you meet other people on travels. For instance, in the UK when someone uses the term ‘Asian’, they usually mean someone of Indian / Pakistani / Bangladeshi origin; any other ethnic groups are specifically referred to, such as Chinese. In Canada and US on the other hand, as I often notice when talking to my (current) roommate, ‘Asian’ usually means Chinese (and sometimes Korean or Japanese) – basically, anyone with ‘Oriental-looking’ features. Other Asian continent ethnicities such as Indians are referred to specifically. This makes for hilarious misunderstandings as we both have to make a mental pit-stop every time the word is used to check whether the intent has been communicated properly.

Accent, on the other hand, is something you will naturally pick up if you spend time long enough with a group of people, just like my scouse friend who started saying ‘ah-rays’. Accents are contagious. There is no such thing, however, as ‘an English accent’. England – and in the broader sense, the UK – has a wonderfully colourful range of accents from town-to-town. What most people think is an English accent, from Hollywood movies or from American TV shows, is a close variation of Received Pronunciation. Basically, the idea of an ‘English accent’ is just like thinking all people from Russia / former Soviet Union speak the same way. :p (The only commonality, really, is they all drink vodka.)

As an Indian, you would call something an ‘accent’ if it differed from your style of speaking, but for an American there is no such thing as an ‘American accent’ because it’s all the same to them. I’ve heard people say that the Indian ‘accent’ is a lack of an accent; the example quoted was Indians pronounce ‘pi’ as ‘pie’, most Western speakers pronounce it as ‘phye’. But there’s a reason why ‘p’ is accompanied by an expelling of air in many accents, and it is to distinguish the sound from ‘b’. (Similarly, ‘t’ and ‘d’ are distinguished by aspiration when pronouncing the former.) Even when learning Mandarin, the ‘p’ / ‘b’ and ‘t’ / ‘d’ sounds are distinguished by making one aspirated. Conversing with British and American speakers you’ll quickly realise that the Indian quirk of not doing so will confuse them between, with ‘peer’ and ‘beer’, if context is missing. With the most of Western accents and the Chinese ganging up, Indians better fucking toe the line, so to speak. ;)

This is why over time people tend to unconsciously start mimicking the speech tones and styles of the country they live in. What sounds like a trivial issue is actually a major concern when due to those little quirks, someone at a sandwich shop or (especially) people on the telephone (customer service? Often based out of Ireland, Wales, or Scotland for UK companies. Fricking nightmare talking to them!) cannot follow a simple conversation.

Everyone has their own accent quirks, so how rapidly you pick up an accent, my experience suggests, is how comfortable people around you are in being able to understand what you say. That’s the strongest catalyst in bringing about accent shifts; anything else is incidental. Although for people who use ‘fake’ accents (call centre employees) the reason is not just to make oneself understood, but also to shed the stereotypes associated with an accent. L ike someone with an Indian accent is probably called Rajeev, eats curry for lunch, lives in Bangalore,  et al. (This tactic doesn’t work as companies shift call centre operations in droves to Philippines instead of staying in India.)

My accent has been whacked all over the place. People you converse with regularly influence this, and when I was in the UK this meant I unconsciously picked up bits and bobs from a range of accents – thus resulting in something that approaches close to a ‘generic’ English accent. Then, I come to Singapore and I’ve to live with two Scots for months – probably picked up a bit of a Scottish accent then. (And lost it, by now. But when you’re around a Scot, it’s hard not to speak like them – it’s so contagious!) Current roommate is Canadian, who works often in New York – so a bit of that. And then come all the Singaporeans, Indians in Singapore, other exchange students say from Germany / France / Finland / Australia, Chinese-origin students who have went to Cambridge board schools…well, let’s just say my accent is a clusterfuck right now. On the bright side, I must be close to approaching a generic global accent (albeit with an underlying hint of an Indian one).

I’m fascinated by this now as performance of speech recognition engines against various accents is one of the aspects I will be researching over the summer. Here’s my question, guys: when you talk to someone with a different accent, truthfully, how much of it do you get straight away and how much do you have to fill in through context? Do you find it ‘Western’ TV shows / films hard to follow? Specifically talking about the Kevin Bridges video embedded earlier in the post – could you understand it, and to what extent? Leave your response as a comment below. It’ll be a big help getting preliminary feedback on key problems on my research topic field.


  1. Vivek

    April 4, 2011

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    With regards to your question, I consider myself lucky because I can understand most accents without too many issues. Be it the odd phone call, Top Gear with its varied guests, or just some other stuff, unlike my brother, who usually needs to replay stuff, I’ve never had that problem, so to speak.

      • Vivek

        April 5, 2011

        Actually, I don’t have any issues. Hehe.
        Though I find closed captioning which is directly embedded onto the video stream to be extremely irritating. It distracts from the main video, as you rightly pointed out.

  2. Aditya

    April 4, 2011

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    Accents are so weird and the get so irritating even after a few minutes. Plus, Apu’s accent in the Simpsons is nowhere near the accents we have here (or so I think).
    And I find it slightly difficult to follow everything in English movies, so I normally use subtitles.
    I could understand the video to a large extent, but I didn’t find it very funny.
    Btw, just as he says ‘friendliest city’, is that guy Larry Page?
    Also, doesn’t ‘Western’ refer to films like True Grit and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid?

    • Yup, but it’s an accent to you. It’s the same that I pointed out in the tweet (by the other Aditya). In the US/UK, ‘Indian’ is an accent. Apu’s accent in Simpsons is obviously caricatured and exaggerated for humourous effect; even then, to a large extent, that is how a Western speaker perceives the Indian accent.

      By ‘Western’ here I mean the ‘Western world’ as comprised of North America, Europe, native English-speaking colonies et al. Not the within-US definition term of Western. See, this brings up my point about word choice too – as the same term means different things to different people. And although I’m sure you were aware of the other meaning, you went for the one that seemed more familiar to you – just like my Canadian friend would zero in on ‘Oriental-origin’ if I use the word ‘Asian’ instead of ‘Indian-subcontinent’.

      Don’t know whether it’s Larry Page. In that video, the humour is mainly derived from the accent and Scottish stereotypes.

    • I also think that most people can indeed most of the dialogues in English films/television, but desire to have subtitles anyway as it makes them more comfortable understanding the rest 1-5% they don’t get.

      Personally, I find subtitles distracting. :) I feel compelled to read them when they are on the screen, even when I don’t need to. And then I find myself losing focus from the video itself.

  3. Aditya

    April 6, 2011

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    Agree with Vivek. For some reason, I don’t find subs in movies distracting, though cc is extremely irritating on YouTube.

  4. Espèra

    April 6, 2011

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    American accents (such as in movies/FRIENDS/How I Met Your Mother/VH1 etc), I can follow. Perhaps 1-2% at most is filled in by context. I sometimes encounter a bit of a problem if they use a word that is not a common English word. Such as a proper noun that I am not familiar with.
    I cannot understand “Black accent” (I don’t know how else to put it). I really cannot follow it without subtitles. Except for people of the likes of Will Smith etc, who just have a slight one.

    I can follow a British accent (such as what Russell Brand has) as easily as the American one, as long as it is not very strong. I had a lot of trouble in My Fair Lady though, especially Audrey Hepburn’s street speech. I cannot differentiate between Irish/Scot/Welsh, but I love their sing-song accent. The Irish accent in P.S.I Love You and a Welsh accent in one other movie are two of the very few times I have come across them, so I can’t say if I can understand them very well. If the accent isn’t too strong, I can understand it fairly well.

    • The Irish accent in P.S. I Love You was done by Gerard Butler, who’s actually Scottish, so it’s a fairly light/standard Irish accent but I’ve come across stronger ones that are harder to understand.

      You make an interesting point about proper nouns being the hardest to understand. Research I did last semester reached pointed towards similar conclusions, as it’s with proper nouns that the greatest variation in pronunciation is seen. Like, in ‘the West’ people pronounce ‘Freud’ as ‘f-roy-d’ while most Asian continent speakers read it as ‘f-ree-ooh-d’.

      • Espèra

        April 8, 2011

        It is not only influenced by the variations in pronunciation, but also terms and nouns that are local to that place.

        Yes I know Gerard Butler did that accent. :/

  5. Ish

    April 9, 2011

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    I usually don’t have a lot of trouble understanding accents, but it definitely does happen every once in a while. For example, I can happily watch movies without subtitles, but I do notice that it doesn’t come to me as naturally as Hindi probably would. It was difficult, yet not too much so for me to understand what the guy is trying to say in the video you just posted.

    On the contrary, I had quite a bit of trouble understand the South Indian English accent when I had to go for my interviews to a couple of colleges in Bangalore. And yeah, I know what you mean by picking up accents. That happens to me, too. I pick up accents and pronunciations all the time.

  6. The Xeno

    April 9, 2011

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    Well this is going to be weird.

    In english movies, what happens is, I don’t face any difficulty in 95% of all the dialogues. The 5% in which I do have some trouble belongs to speeches made when people are dying, panting, groaning, etc etc.

    In the video above, i could catch 80% of it easily and correctly, while the rest were ‘filling up of context’. But in other videos on youtube, it is 90%.

    Now the weird part. When I talk to some native english speaker, face to face.. that is where i find it quite difficult. I can only catch 40% of what he/she says. I dunno, maybe you can blame it on lack of confidence talking to someone in person.

    • Ankur Banerjee

      April 10, 2011

      Post a Reply

      Thanks for the feedback. I think with TV shows and films, you’ve actors who recreate conversations separately in recording studios (it’s a concept used in a large number of productions these days called automated dialogue replacement.) Actors are taught to enunciate properly so that it’s easy for a the significant foreign audience to understand too!

  7. buddhifree

    April 15, 2011

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    i had a french colleague while interning. i had to ask her to repeat EVERYTHING she said atleast twice. and even then, i had to fill in quite a bit through context. She, on the other hand, usually understood things i said. or atleast she pretended to.

  8. Akshay

    July 28, 2011

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    expecting the appreciation(cake) to be a lie i jumped to the end of the post first……

  9. I am now used to subtitles (thanks to Star World) and can’t watch certain pieces without them. It irritates the hell out of me if I even one word passes me.

    Whenever possible, I try to disable subtitles to get used to the accent but unlike Vivek, I am able to focus more on the video when I have subtitles with the video.

    The same goes for English songs with me. I can never make head or tail of a song (lest a few) without going through the lyrics at least once.

    Also, was that comedian even speaking English?

  10. Adnan Mahmood

    September 19, 2011

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    Dude, I swear one time when I walked into our room at NTU, you were on Skype talking to some friends from India and you were putting on an Indian accent so they could understand you!!!

    It really depends on who you are around I guess. I may have lived the majority of my life in Glasgow, Scotland, but I was born in Huddersfield, a small town in Yorkshire not too far from Bradford (Bradistaaaann braaaap braaaaap) and Manchester. I end up putting on my Yorkshire accent when I’m around family from down there.

    Or to simply put it as a random ned from Glasgow would say:
    “Ow you ya mad dafteee! Gonae shtop talking all dat mad pish?”

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