Friday, July 9, 2010

Accents: The Toggle Theory

I think I may have written a bit about accents and attitudes before. Its just too bad that I didn’t start the blog when I was still back in India. I think the opinions I had about NRI accents and attitudes back in India were strong enough not to be published in any public place. The opinions bordered between hopelessness and a “ewwww” feeling. However they might have changed now :).

For the benefit of my European/American friends (no I am not biased but I don’t have any Australian or African readership :P) NRI stands for Non Resident Indian, there are some snide takes on the acronym, but lets not go there. It is basically one of those breed of Indians who have optionally decided to settle abroad in a foreign country, for various reasons, technically Indian citizens who live and work outside India for 10 months or more in a yer. The percentage of NRIs might be small, but with a population of more than a billion people in the country, believe me the numbers are not negligible. As one of my Iranian friends was telling me, when she got down at Heathrow airport, she could hardly spot a single Englishman. There were way more brown/black faces than white ones. Yes, and you thought that it was England that had colonized India back in history. Well, whatever, so there is this breed of people called NRIs. Now why are they different? Because they happen to have adopted the attitudes, thinking and sometimes.. err.. accents of their newly adopted country. I pause before I say accent because that one is a sensitive spot for all Indians.

For those of you who have had any interest in accents, you must have seen/heard the Indian/Canadian comedian Russell Peters and his numerous jokes on the topic. Well, for those of you who haven’t, you must have noticed that the Indian accent doesn’t exactly make the girls drool and the hearts beat faster. Well, it might be good for a lot of other things, but in Russell Peters words “it wont exactly get you laid”. However in spite of all this, Indians are very particular about their accent. Just like there is no typical Indian guy, so also there is no typical Indian accent. It’s a big country of a billion people for heavens sake, the accent varies across the regions. There are around 26 states, and I think I can safely say that there are AT LEAST 26 accents. However the underlying rules do not change. The Ts and the Ds have a distinctive “hard” sound, with a lot of stress. The Rs are not rolled, the “I”s are not ignored, in fact they are stressed upon. Sometimes the “s” sound takes on a “j” or a “sh” sound, hence “it is the truth” becomes “eet eej the T(stress)ruth”. No don’t get me wrong, I am not making fun of anyone here, I am just stating facts. And that my friends, is the Indian accent for you.

Why are Indians sensitive about their most exotic accent? Maybe because it is exotic, or maybe because, like every other race/nationality, that is the identifying feature. However, I can tell you one thing, if you happen to look like an Indian, brown skin, dark eyes, black hair, and do not have the typical Indian accent, you will not be taken very nicely by the Indian “junta”. Which is a condition which most NRIs suffer from. After having faced numerous situations where I was victimized and traumatized for having a “non-desi” accent where I pronounce S as S and not J or Sh, I finally found the perfect solution. A toggle. Yes you got it right, an option to toggle between the two accents. It works almost exactly like when you want to have two operating systems, and you keep an option on the login screen about which OS you want to log into. Just like that, an accent toggle. So in the beginning before entering a conference call, Id pause and think which accent should I “log in” with, and then after a point it came naturally. The only problem is, as you might have already guessed, when the audience is mixed. Well, I just go by the majority.

Needless to say my colleagues find it extremely amusing, some even find it hilarious. But it serves the purpose. It is amazing how an accent can give you an acceptance into a group. The moment I start hardening my Ts and Ds, there is a sudden transformation in the attitudes of my Indian colleagues, suddenly I am their Desi Manager. With Europeans, well it is more a cause for being comprehensible than being acceptable, other than the genius ones who have now given in to adapting to the Indian accent (you cannot be in IT and not adapt to the Indian accent). I am currently working on further toggles between the South Indian accent, the Punjabi (Delhi) accent and the amazingly wonderful Bengali accent (my teams work out of Bangalore, Kolkata and some friends are in Gurgaon). I strongly believe that “The Toggle” philosophy is the next big thing in International Business, I am thinking of approaching Stockholm University to understand if I should write a white paper on the topic :).

As promised, I am more here than I used to be. Ok stop cribbing, this IS more. Accept it :). I am a busy guy, but hopefully from next week I will have much more free time. So you will see more more of me :).


In case you didnt catch the Russell Peters fever, here is something for you:

Picture reference:


  1. accent - hmmm....well, I do not have any problem with NRIs speaking in firang accent..what "amuses" me is their inability to speak without accent..all your life, you lived in one country, spoke plain English and six months in a foreign country - aap firang ho gaye..waah..and the worst thing is the attitude that comes with the accent..baapre!

    I have come across only such people so far..

    I always wonder - what will I do in a foreign country? I have a typical Mumbaiya accent..even Indians fail to understand a few words I use..

    you can toggle? wow..first person I know who can do that..

    I am not going to comment about your blogging frequency..knowing your posting trend, next post may come after a couple of months!! :P

  2. Haha...I agree with Neha, "the attitude that comes with the accent...baapre!"

    As for me, I have a trademark south indian accent that comes out only and only in the court room. Jestt can't help it saar.

  3. :-) Thoroughly enjoyed reading this write up. There is one thing that I fail to understand. There are folks with perfectly normal accent and once you are in a company of an American(I have worked only with Americans, havent worked with Europeans yet) the R's are rolled and the I's ignored.

    I got reminded of an incident at work, where a guy swtiched to American accent only with the American colleague and with the rest of us, he was normal. Well, well, until the American mentioned Lamborghini in between his talks.

    Our dear Americanized friend asked "Lamborghini? Whats it? I have not heard", and the entire crowd burst out laughing. Sad for him.

    My pet peeve is not about coming up with that fake accent, but the attitude that's totally unwarranted for!!

  4. @ All: Well, what can I say! I dont really toggle the attitudes and my accent is not "fake" its just neutralized when I want it to be. As for the NRI "attitude" erm.. it deserves a separate post, dont you think :P

  5. :-P Panic not! My comment to the least was not personal. I just mentioned about my observations and that funny incident.


  6. Wonderful post as always..

    It's funny I have been here 10 years but I don't think I have an accent.. I think I still speak like I used to back in India..

  7. :) Dunno how I missed this post of yours.
    Very funny, and true. I have a hard time explaining to my firangi friends that the accent that Appu has in the show Simpsons is not the way we Indians speak. Lol! I tell them that it varies regionally.
    Interesting toggle theory. :)
    An audio post on it someday?????