Take That, Arrogant American English Speakers

by May 8, 2018Linguistics1 comment

This was utterly, absolutely fascinating. I laughed out loud with joy to hear these residents of Mumbai defend their English and criticize ours (see especially starting around 1:10). Why did I find this so funny/interesting?

Because it overturns American expectations in an extremely healthy way, linguistically speaking. The truth is, even though Americans now know we’re not supposed to say it out loud, we tend to regard Indian English (and Kenyan English and Singaporean English, if we ever encounter them) as “sounding funny.” Whereas Brits and Aussies (and Canadians and Scots and the Welsh and Irish) use English accents that sound familiar through our exposure to British TV, and whereas they use accents to which we feel they have a right; Indians are (we tend to suppose) all speaking English “wrong” because (we tend to suppose) they speak it as a second language. Indeed, the way the real-life young Indians in this video talk is just a beat off from what we would say. (I still found it all perfectly intelligible, but I noticed that the captioner silently “corrected” it to fit American norms.)

  • One young woman pronounces basically as a four-syllable word rather than a three-syllable word (1:55 or so).
  • Another man, when asked whether he knew that Americans make fun of his accent, said, “After I went to United State I thought they spoke wrong English, so I make fun of their English, so it doesn’t make any difference to me.” (Yes! Loved that guy! See at 1:59.)
  • Another young man, after opining that American English speakers “look like they are spitting,” said, “Sorry, not offensive.” He elided “to be” (or “I don’t wish to be”) in a way I don’t think American English speakers would, and it sounded purposeful and not mistaken. (See 2:12ish.)

“I think our accent is better,” said that same young man. “I think they need to learn English from us,” said the next young man interviewed. (See 2:18ff.) That’s when I laughed out loud with pleasure. Because these young people were so entertainingly articulating what I’ve been saying now for so long, but what I had to learn the hard way—by putting my foot in my mouth in front of a Kenyan and later a Singaporean: Why is what we say “right” and what they say “wrong” if, as several of them point out, they can understand each other just fine? Do we own English just because we’ve had it longer? Indeed, basically is spelled like a four-syllable word—why isn’t it pronounced that way in the U.S.? If India were the ruling power of the world, if Bollywood dominated global entertainment, if Indian English authors were the most translated of all writers, Americans would see things differently. I predict you’d see Indian usages cropping up inside our borders: Indian catchphrases, Indian pronunciations. We just can’t imagine our linguistic world in any other way than it is now, but we should. It’s a healthy exercise.

Now, the people interviewed in this video are not all linguistic saints. The one man in the turban said he finds French-accented and Russian-accented English funny. But then I’m not sure anyone learns either of those Englishes as his or her first language, and as this video makes clear, many Indian youth are now taught Indian-inflected English before learning their “proper” native tongues.

I have not read deeply in sociolinguistics. I’m sure I’m missing opportunities to use the jargon of that field to explain what I’m witnessing. I just know I find it all delightful. Language is so fun; people around the world all take it so personally, as well they should. Give it some time, and we’ll see what impact that powerful subcontinent over there with its billion-plus inhabitants, 12.6% of which speak English, will do to our shared tongue. I can’t wait to find out. But if you think your English is “right” and theirs is “wrong,” watch this video. And take that.

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