Shreya Sen-Handley | Speaking in tongues: The gift of accents
In Channel 5’s excellent adaptation of PD James’ Murder Room, a witness is knocked over by a suspect’s car, and cannot remember the latter’s face but recalls his voice perfectly when pressed by the police. This got me thinking about the import of voices, as much as of life and death. And of Harry Belafonte, who passed away in April, leaving his sundrenched voice to circulate around our Kolkata residence. He was a particular favourite of my Dad’s, as was the deep baritone of Jim Reeves and Nat King Cole. Then Michael Jackson came along in the eighties and shook my poor father up. He struggled to grasp how falsetto vocals from a man could be so popular. But, consistently, or inconsistently perhaps, he adored Usha Uthup’s bass!
Our response to voices is reverberatingly complicated. There is, for example, this deeply unfair perception that lighter voices belong to intellectual lightweights. Yet, many cerebral individuals, including the millions of women whose voices are octaves higher than men, have girlish voices. Margaret Thatcher is said to have practised lowering her voice to command her cabinet, and recently in the news was the case of Silicon Valley swindler Elizabeth Holmes of Theranos who had adopted a more masculine tone to succeed in business. For Hillary Clinton, ridiculed as ‘Shrillary’, her pitch was yet another hurdle to becoming US president.
In India, the speed of our speech is sometimes considered a measure of intellect, but that belief has been discredited. Many mighty brains, like inspirational poet Benjamin Zephaniah, come from Britain’s West Midlands, where conversations proceed at the pace of paint drying on walls. But if you pitch your voice higher, or talk at a slower pace, aren’t you likely to be better understood than less? As pleasing as a deep voice is, those lower registers sound too often like mumbling.
Although it has deepened with age, I have a light voice myself (at barely five feet, a gravelly voice might have been incongruous)! Even in my twenties, leading a multinational television channel in eastern India as I did then, random callers would insist on talking to my parents, convinced that I was underage! Any wonder I eventually moved back to print journalism, where my words spoke for themselves, and the girlishness of my voice went undetected? Ironic too, in a profession that’s about giving voice to the voiceless.
Accents can be the source of misunderstandings as well. English spoken in any accent other than their own can have the British flummoxed, or worse — scrambling to correct your pronunciation (with receptionists the worst culprits). Having a neutral accent, the product of my nomadic existence, means I’m less often subjected to this unpleasantness. But mine is an unplaceable accent nevertheless, and often brings a (generally well-meaning) torrent of questions. Am I French/Scottish/American/Canadian/Filipino/Mauritian, or something else? That I look as South Asian as daal-bhaat doesn’t seem to matter in these instances. Does our speech say more about us than our appearance? How interesting!
Of course the funniest thing about this Britishtussle with ‘accents’ is that they themselves have a bewildering range of tongue-twisting regional dialects.Yet, earwigging at Kolkata airport recently, on an assertive Indian Gen Z representative correcting an African co-passenger on his English speech, though his was less grating, I was reminded that we can be just as blind in our belief in our superior linguistic skills. Obviously, an accent is only ever an accent, and necessarily wrong, when it’s not your own!
I couldn’t help but wonder as well, where race figured in this assumption of greater wisdom for ourselves (but that’s another column). There’s no doubt however that our vocal features are as inextricably entwined with our identity as our facades. I was intrigued and yet unsurprised to learn in a webinar last week that the autistic sometimes have accents that are vastly different from the people around them, even when articulation is absolutely not a problem. They can sound American, for example, when they’re resoundingly British. But the clue is in the term neurodivergent; our speech inevitably reflects variations in the wiring of our brains. But differences are just that in the end, and not merit determinants.
Has my neurodivergence contributed more to my unpindownable accent than my life of travel? Does it explain my teenage son’s Irish brogue, when he’s never visited Ireland? That it clearly has nothing to do with verbal competence, as anyone who’s ever challenged either of us to a verbal duel will attest, makes it more fascinating. The physiology of our brains would seem to have as much to do with our accents as the influence of our human environment, demonstrated by the experience of an English writing student of mine, who had sounded British all her life till she was injured in an accident. Disconcertingly for her and her friends, she emerged from hospital with unshakeable Polish inflections! But only her pronunciation had changed and nothing else about her mastery of the English language.
At home, besides my own muddled twang and son’s Gaelic lilt, are my daughter’s who-knows-from-where perfect BBC delivery and husband’s mild Yorkshire burr, adding to the feeling that we live in the Tower of Babel. But the harmony of different voices and accents is music to my ears, and I wouldn’t have it any other way!