What Is an Indian-English Accent?

What Is an Indian Accent? by Susheel C (audio)

I’m a Voice Over artist from India and I have a mild, neutral, Indian accent. So, what does that mean? What does an Indian accent sound like?

Well, the truth is that there isn’t any one single accent that is definitively ‘Indian’. Although, there seems to be a stereotypical ‘Indian accent’ (does “birdie num num” come to mind?). The one performed by Peter Sellers is close enough to this stereotype (here’s a tutorial).

His representation is probably most closely related to a South Indian, Tamil Brahmin speaking English – in the past. As you can see, there’s quite a bit of specificity involved here… South Indian, Tamil, Brahmin, speaking English in the past. For the most part, Indians don’t sound like that anymore.

The Diversity That is India!

India is incredibly diverse, with 28 different states and 8 union territories. Many states have their own regional languages, and some have more than one. Indian states recognise their regional languages as the official language, and may include Hindi, English, and others as additional languages. Our constitution lists 22 languages as ‘scheduled languages’! Isn’t that diverse? Yet, we’re all Indians and need to be able to understand each other.

Although the timing of this post coincides with a current political debate in India about the imposition of Hindi in states that are not predominantly Hindi speaking, as well as the use of Hindi as a language to unify India, this post is not about that debate. I’m merely exploring my own “Indian accent”. I’m attempting to explore and celebrate the diversity in my own heritage.

English As a Unifying Language?

The history behind the widespread usage of English is well known. There’s no need to delve into the reasons why it happened. The result is interesting, though…

Today, Indians (or people of Indian origin) who speak English occupy prominent roles in businesses, organisations, and governments all over the world. They are able to pursue education abroad, excel at it, and pursue their dreams. English has allowed us to understand each other across state boundaries, and to build industry, businesses, and even outsource tasks from other English-speaking nations (much to their chagrin).

In my life, this ability to understand people from diverse states, and who speak different languages has shaped my family a great deal!

Is Hindi a “National” Language?

You may think that most Indians speak Hindi. A quick look at the map below, shows that the number of Indians who consider Hindi to be their mother tongue is quite low across India, and is concentrated in a tight region of north-central India spanning a few different states. To be clear, these numbers are not just for pure ‘Hindi’, but also represent a number of regional dialects and variations, which also get clubbed together under the umbrella of “Hindi”.

Map showing percentage of people who reported Hindi as their mother tongue during the 2011 Census of India.
Map showing districts of India, with the percentage of people who reported Hindi as their mother tongue during the 2011 Census of India. Image Credit: Raj Bhagat P.

What Languages Does Susheel C Speak?

Yeah, I just referred to myself in the third-person. That’s just for clarity and SEO (Search Engine Optimisation).

My parents’ families come from different parts of India. Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra, Karnataka – That’s three different languages. To complicate matters, my cousins and siblings are married to people from even more states! The one common language that all the families share is English. It was the most convenient, and the least confusing.

Knowing English better than my mother tongue has also created its own issues. Sometimes, it’s hard to fit in. Sometimes I don’t get the nuance of a conversation. Sometimes people think that I’m from abroad … in my own country. That’s not a nice feeling.

So, what languages do I speak? I speak English fluently, I speak Tamil and Hindi enough to have a passable conversation, and I speak enough French to ask if someone speaks English. 😀

That’s why I stick to what I do best. I record Voice Overs in English. English with a mild, but neutral-sounding Indian accent.

What Do Modern Indians Sound Like, Then?

They sound like me. But they also have their own regional influences, and those influences are diverse, as you’ve seen. They’re educated, they ‘get’ western cultural influences, and they sound like any international professional when it comes down to business. Indian professionals are truly global citizens. They have varied cultural influences, and while they respect the traditions and customs of old, they look to the world to find their own place in it.

Thank you for reading this blog post, where I share some thoughts that are on my mind. I’d like to hear your opinion, and that’s what the comment section down below is for … feel free to share your thoughts, and I’ll be happy to respond.

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