How the ‘Neutral’ Indian Accent Erases Our Histories
Indian-English accents differ by region — but class-caste dominance coupled with globalized work cultures shapes what the “right” one is.
“I dream of an English
To speak English in India is a privilege – one that remains inaccessible. An added layer of privilege is the accent in which the English is spoken, which becomes yet another barrier to keep spaces, resources, and ideas secured within an exclusionary bubble.
Indian English, characterized by retroflex consonants, developed over decades of colonial history. There are as many accents in English as there are languages in India – but above all has risen an urban version of the accent, one that has become increasingly flattened. In the age of globalization, “contemporary English is detached from any specific cultural identity; it is a tool which links different societies in an increasingly smaller world,” according to Anna Corradi.
Many Indians claim that access to global TV, internet culture, news media, etc. have all given them an accent that’s difficult to place in any particular region in India.
This English accent signifies a certain socio-cultural capital in India. It’s the English that, when spoken, places the speaker in no identifiable place at all. They exist in an ether, along with others of their ilk who could be from any metropolitan city in India, and who gatekeep this ether. This is the English of influencers, English-medium schools, second-to-third-generation learners, and the global job market. In the race to compete for elite employment, English is currency – one that’s wielded much more easily by a few.
“… 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,” writes columnist Ruchir Joshi. It’s an accent that’s come to be known as “neutral” – signifying a benign matter-of-factness to the speaker’s identity when in fact, it’s still located somewhere. And that somewhere is caste and class privilege.
The neutral English accent is thus also used as a tool to nullif a sense of place or belonging – especially among people who came to the accent later in life, and not by default. Aditi, 21, who was from a small town in Uttar Pradesh cultivated her “neutral” English accent carefully, based on the American TV shows and other globalized cultural artefacts she consumed. In a way, the shame and inferiority around accents replicates the one that’s felt about class and caste in India.
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This “neutral” Indian English accent that’s become the accent of the modern, globalized Indian’s work culture, of Indian representation to a Western gaze, of corporate smoothness. “I have a ‘work voice’ with somewhat of a neutral accent that kicks in because I work with people globally,” says Shivani, 27.
This aspiration for a globalized Indian accent stems largely from a place of shame and inferiority and is an attempt to actively hide one’s roots.
Mahadevan, 25, grew up without hearing English at all. But when he entered the corporate workforce, he adopted a practised, “neutral” English accent – “softly with corners smoothened… that’s how most people who are deemed to be smart spoke.” It’s the kind of accent that implicitly signifies the casteist notion of merit: as the accent of the upper classes and castes whose accents are closest to the “Cultivated Indian English” accent of their ancestors, the “neutral” Indian accent comes to represent intellect or know-how.
Antara, 32, is from Assam and grew up hearing English spoken in local dialects from Assam and neighboring states: the Khasi, Bodo, and Naga accents in English were common. And yet, she was influenced by American and English television, aspiring to the “universal” accent she found there. “Assam was quite heavily influenced by the colonial idea of how you speak… You’re judged on that. We have a lot of convent schools… I was not in one of these so I didn’t realize it until I met them, but we would aspire to that accent because it was regarded highly. That made me self-conscious.”
As a result, it has become a language of “passing” rather than assertion: “I aspire to speak fluent English because I’m conscious of not exposing my caste and class location, so would like to pass off as somebody who’s no lesser than an upper caste person when it comes to language or ‘merit’ for that matter,” says Jatin, 23.
English as liberation, subversion, and resistance has been an important anti-caste strategy, beginning with B.R. Ambedkar. But just as this happened, the “neutral accent” emerged as the new barrier, distinguishing Indian English speakers from one another in subtle, yet definitive ways. It’s no longer so much English as it is your English accent that determines access, capital, and success.
The compulsion to conform to a kind of English creates a “culture of dependence” that leads to new kinds of inequalities drawn along familiar lines. English could have been reclaimed from the elite as an equalizer – but the required accents within English become new chasms to overcome, one slow syllable at a time.
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Increasingly, however, learning and speaking English with the accent of one’s own history becomes a form of reclaiming it – and rejecting hierarchies around which language is constructed. There is power in mastering the language and wielding it like a weapon, as English professor Vijeta Kumar notes – accents and all.
Take the case of Ano, 27, who comes from a tribal community in the North East. “I felt insecure about my accent when I speak English because it gives away my identity, down to the community I belong to. I saw people from my community being trolled on the internet by “mainland Indians” because it sounds “fake” “funny” and “cringe” to them… now, I don’t have any aspiration to sound a certain way. I like that my English sounds the way it does. Sometimes, I even exaggerate my “tribal accent” a little near people of high social status.”
“…the story of English in India and the Anglophone world cannot simply be the story of oppression,” writes Saxena. Simply put, there are as many Englishes as there are languages in India – and removing language from English removes our history itself.
Rohitha Naraharisetty is a Senior Associate Editor at The Swaddle. She writes about the intersection of gender, caste, social movements, and pop culture. She can be found on Instagram at @rohitha_97 or on Twitter at @romimacaronii.