Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Do y'all hear my Tanglish?

As a kid, I did what other kids and adults did--I made fun of others.  Laughter at the expense of others was considered normal. It extended well into the undergraduate years as well.  After all, nobody ever told me anything otherwise.

But then, slowly wisdom dawned.  I can not ever understand why the damn wisdom should show up much later in life!

These days, most jokes that I make are about me.  I love it--nobody gets hurt, and I get a wonderful outlet for my bizarre sense of humor, which is also an outlet for all my angst anyway.  It is a win-win all around, except for those who have to suffer my humor--especially the captive audience in the classroom ;)

One of the earliest realizations was about the way we speak.  The accents. The choice of words.  The idioms. In the early phase of my life, those were the low hanging fruit for the crude humor.  Visiting grandmothers' places meant exposure to the way of speaking in that part of the old country, and it was so easy to make fun of it.

Now, as I get older, I find the jokes on accents to be awful.  In the old country, people do that a lot even now.

I find the different accents, the unusual phrasings, to be charming. They add color to the otherwise monotonous same-old, same-old.  It is so Soviet-like if everybody talked the same way.

Further, the ultimate understanding of all: it is about communication and human interactions.  After all, we "hear" those differences only in the real world of human interactions, right?  As an old New Yorker cartoon put it, in the internet nobody knows you are a dog!  I would rather hear somebody's accented voice in a discussion than yet another "like" on Facebook.

An old anthropologist friend of mine used to tell his students that everybody has an accent.  It just depends on the context.  Of course, that didn't stop him from making fun of my accent ;)

A few years ago, when I went to the deep, deep South for the first time, I was all set to listen to the charming southern accent. The drawl. The y'all. I was so disappointed.  In the public space, the number of people who spoke "like a Southerner" was way less than what I had imagined would be the case.

The nasty jokes and condescending attitudes towards some accents and way of speaking, while lauding others, is "back door to discrimination."  We forget that "the so-called standard is simply an invention of a given society."
"We talk a lot about racial discrimination," explains Ms. Lawson, who is now a junior. "We talk about judging people based on their socioeconomic status" and on other, more visibly identifiable factors. But people rarely talk about language, even though it is socially stratified in the United States, as in most countries.
"When I came to college," Ms. Lawson says, "people kept telling me how strong my accent was." She thought, "Wow, y’all need to come home with me and hear how other people sound." She was doing what linguists call code-switching — toning down her accent in favor of a standardized English considered to be more acceptable.

I wish somebody had told me all these at least when I was twenty years old! Heck, even when I was thirty!  Oh well, wisdom better late than never, eh.


Ramesh said...

Yes ; "accent discrimination" is just another form of discrimination. And just like you, I too made fun of accents when I was young (and equally got made fun of). Its when I started to travel internationally, that I recognised the rich diversity of accents and the sheer idiocy of considering that one is superior to another. Yeah, wisdom does come late in life, but I am thankful later is better than never.

How about another form of discrimination - the fluency of language. How many jokes abound on funny English in some shop board, or road sign. That's equally stupid. Try learning a new language, especially if you don't have the talent for it (like when I started learning Chinese) and these jokes will stop forever.

I suppose this is all an expression of the fundamental instinct of survival and therefore the need to always prove that one is "superior" to others.

Anne in Salem said...

Accents are interesting. So many American women consider British/Australian/NZ accents or those of the romance languages to be sexy, no matter how little of what is spoken is actually understood. Many from the eastern half of the US consider an Appalachian accent an indication of academic and cultural ignorance, no matter how erroneous that stereotype. Curious the reactions of people to something foreign.

Mike Hoth said...

I suppose this is as good a time as any to admit it. I do sometimes practice a stereotypical Indian accent, and I was always terrified that I'd slip up and start using it in your office!

I had a professor once (Matt Constantino, at Portland Community College) who taught his students that Oregonians have an accent, much to the shock of half the class. Unlike most English speakers, people in the Pacific Northwest pronounce words like "cot" and "caught" the same way. Your anthropologist friend was right that everybody has an accent.

Sriram Khé said...

Yes, thanks to the internet, the "the fluency of language" jokes are shared in nanoseconds by people who aren't fluent even in their own languages. It is one thing to chuckle at the translation issues, but another to laugh with condescension. We humans are stupid, stupid, stupid!

Yep, when Hollywood includes characters with Appalachian or Southern accents, it rarely ever portrays them in a good light. And we flock to those kinds of movies because we humans are stupid, stupid, stupid!

"I was always terrified that I'd slip up" ... yep, you ought to have been terrified of slipping up. The best then is to adopt my grandmother's warning: do not make fun because it will become your habit even without you knowing.

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