November 1, 2016

JAIN | On Accents

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Cornell has given many students coming from very different parts of the world an amazing chance to meet different people from diverse areas. I never thought I’d meet so many people from exotic locales such as Westchester and Long Island. In all seriousness though, being at Cornell has exposed me to many students from all around the continental U.S. as well as many international students from countries the average American would probably struggle to locate on a map. All these students bring their distinct experiences and characteristics with them — a welcoming thought for all students who feel they may not fit the mold of the traditional Cornellian.

While at times Cornell can feel like the whitest place on earth, every now and then you’ll see a fellow non-white person or someone with an accent and feel a little more comfortable with the school you chose to go to. For me, differences such as accents have always been comforting. This may be due to my father’s Indian accent and the major role he always played in my life, but who knows. Regardless, I have come to realize that not everyone agrees with this sentiment. While I can understand people from more traditionally Cornellian backgrounds may not be able to relate to the simple pleasure of hearing an accent and feeling a sense of belonging on campus, I do want to challenge some of the more disturbing norms associated with accents.

Let me just preface this by saying that obviously accents indicate some form of foreignness or otherness. If one notices an accent that is because the speaker comes from somewhere where the listener does not. However, a curious hierarchical structure seems to exist among accents, especially with what we as westerners find attractive. That is to say, we tend to find certain accents especially attractive as compared to others. For example, there exist certain stereotypes, such as the astute British accent or the sultry Latin accent, that evoke certain ideas among the mainstream western psyche. While these stereotypes come with their own problematic baggage and can be subverted, they are nonetheless traditionally seen as attractive accents.

I bring this idea up in order to compare the ways accents tend to be treated and specify the exact place in which tinges of orientalism and possibly even racism may be found. Ever since I was a kid, representations of non-western characters in movies and television were sparse, but could be found. Characters like Apu from The Simpsons and Sacha Baron Cohen’s titular character from Borat come to mind. While these are comical characters for a myriad of reasons, their accents and speak patterns can always be used for easy laughs. Quite literally these types of characters can say anything and it will garner a laugh.

While the usage of accents as comedic enhancers or props is not surprising, it does reveal a certain perceived ugliness or crudeness associated with non-occidental accents. This ugliness makes oriental accents easy targets for comedy, but what appears more troubling is the inaccuracy of the accents themselves. As an Indian person with an Indian dad with an accent, I can tell you that no one sounds like Apu. A friend recently shared a NPR podcast with me that explored this concept with a panel of Indians from varying parts of India with differing Indian accents. The panel came to the conclusion that the Apu character was essentially a manifestation of what Americans perceived as Indian accents. While the ugliness that tends be associated with Indian accents has far more complicated roots, it’s far to say that all accents are not viewed in the same light.

You may be wondering what exactly the point in all the words above is. In the context of Cornell, I hope you’ll be more open to accents and forget the preconceived notions you may have of certain accents. For me, accents are a pleasant reminder of home and I can understand that that may not be true for you. Regardless, I urge you to make an effort to reach out to students that may not look or sound just like you. Coming from a place as homogenous as Texas, I can tell you Cornell offers a major opportunity to branch out. As corny as this may sound, I can tell you from personal experience that the only time you should laugh at someone with an accent is when he or she are telling you a joke.

Akshay Jain is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at [email protected].College Stuff appears alternate Wednesdays this semester.