Jay Dixit confesses to an obsession with imitating funny accents.
Published on February 26, 2008 by Jay Dixit in Brainstorm
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I’m not sure how I first became interested in accents. The obvious suspect upon whom to pin the blame would be my father, an immigrant from India who speaks with what you might call a subtle foreign accent. Growing up, when my brother and I needed to do an impression of him, it wound up coming out like Apu from the Simpsons. But in reality his accent is an elegant mix of the Bhopal of his youth, the Delhi of his teen years, the Chicago of his doctoral days, the Canada of my childhood, and the France where he spent years working at CERN—and the combination is, I promise you, utterly inimitable.
Indeed, such was my enthusiasm for accents that I went so far as to order an audiobook called Accent Monologues for Actors, which I practiced out loud, and I acquired the habit of repeating the lines spoken by characters on TV to try to simulate their accents. In my prime, I could do different kinds of German (the barking Nazi stormtrooper vs. the refined watchmaker), English (Oxbridge vs. Cockney vs. Liverpool), and many Indian relatives (with varying levels of Western education in their voices). Thus began a lifetime of constant and annoying recitation of accented lines.
Some people are better mimics than others. In Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, Kevin Costner’s attempt at an English accent was reportedly so atrocious—even after months of accent training from a dialect coach—that he had to overdub the entire movie minus the accent.
But why are people who mangle the language so funny? It may be that the ear expects to hear language spoken a certain way—and the subversion of those expectations creates the surprise necessary for humor. This works not just on the ear but also on the eye. There’s a time-honored tradition of funny accents in literature, the most salient recent example of which is Alexander, the Borat-esque narrator in Everything Is Illuminated.
I’m also fascinated by accent modification, when a person deliberately sheds (or rather more rarely, acquires) an accent different from the dominant one in the place they live. A friend of mine has two uncles who immigrated from Russia at the same time, but one speaks in an eerily flawless American drawl, and the other retains a heavy St. Petersberg brogue. In Arnold Schwarzenegger’s first movie, Hercules Goes Bananas, his garbled English was so incomprehensible that it had to be dubbed over by another actor. (He’s credited as Arnold Strong.) Of course, his accent has now attained iconic status, and is part of the charm of his absurd one-liners.
Accent is a central part of impression management—the way we present ourselves to others—and it has real and measurable effects. There’s a reason newscasters all talk the same way: They’re trained to shed their regionalisms. Accents influence our perceptions of another person’s class, intelligence, friendliness—even their credibility on the witness stand. We’re all familiar with the stereotypes about various accents: British accents are perceived as intelligent and charming, and Southern accents are perceived as dumb. Or is it that British accents are perceived as snobby and Southern accents are perceived as folksy and friendly? It depends on your bias. But I know a British guy who attracted no women when he lived in his native London, but dates more than he can comfortably handle now that he wields the vocal cachet of an Englishman in New York.
The other arena in which accents are highly visible, of course, is politics. At Ivy League colleges, you can tell who’s planning on running for public office because they’re the ones who keep their regional accents while everyone else converges on a generic “educated” accent. Politicians such as Bill Clinton and Mike Huckabee are perceived as folksy—not hoity-toity, able to relate to the people—partly due to their Southern accents. Pundits have wondered whether foreign accents have hampered the political viability of Arnold Schwarzenegger, Teresa Heinz Kerry, and Arianna Huffington. Meanwhile, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton have both been accused of changing their accent to pander to Southern audiences.
Far be it for me to judge, though. Born and raised in Ottawa, I’ve spoken most of my life with a Canadian accent, peppering my speech liberally with “eh” and “right on!” But in college, I got tired of people making fun of my “oots” and “aboots,” of their grabbing my arm mid-sentence and saying, “Wait a minute, are you from Canada?” So I stopped using the phrases that stopped people in their tracks, and gradually, my speech lost all traces of my Canadian roots. As hard as it is to admit, I guess I was just tired of being perceived as different. My metamorphosis is immortalized in an article in the Yale Daily News about students who allowed their accents to fade. “I’m trying to see if I can pass as American,” I’m quoted as saying. “If Peter Jennings can do it, I can do it.”
But that doesn’t stop me from invoking a classic accent when the mood strikes. Respeck, peace.