A Leg Up for Indian English

In the mornings when I drop off my daughter at school, I generally have BBC on the car radio. (It’s Disney if I pick her up. That’s the deal with her. I can subject her to BBC in the mornings if I let her listen to Disney in the PM.)

For the longest time, BBC has had reporters in India or Pakistan or Africa who speak English like the locals do. So I’m used to hearing English spoken in a nice Indian accent on BBC. Which is perhaps why, I did not notice this till today – nowadays, even newscasters on BBC World News have Indian accents.

Today’s news, for instance, was anchored by someone with a British accent, presumably in London, and someone in India with a pucca Indian accent.

A few years ago, I had written a piece on The Future of Business English, predicting that Indian English would become more and more acceptable. That piece was more about words and phrases. But its the same with accents.

The acceptability of Indian accented English will be propelled by two things – India’s economic importance and the greater interconnectedness of the world.

The rise of Indian as an economic power is most important. Nobody cares about the culture and heritage of country that is poor. But as soon as that very country’s economy starts growing it presents opportunities. Suddenly, every one wants to learn what they can about the country, its language and culture. That’s the way of the world.

Now if this was all there was to it, China would be far ahead. But that will change. Western democracies have a natural preference for democratic India. And English is an Indian language. It’s a big window into India. English is not a Chinese language.

Greater interconnectedness comes from many things. Immigration is one. Indians form the largest (or one of the largest) groups of immigrants in the US, Canada, UK and Australia. Some come as college students. Others with the Indian IT Services industry. With the years, the number of Indian-born immigrants embedded in all walks of life in these countries keeps going up. And guess what, every one of them speaks in this accent that gets less and less strange to the natives, as the years go by.

The explosion of video on the internet also helps. You don’t have to depend upon the fare network TV is dishing out. You can go to TED Talks where you’ll find many Indian speakers. Or some Indian born exec at Google talking about the next big thing from Google.

But Indian accents on American TV still hasn’t caught on. We’re seeing a whole bunch of Indian faces – Aarti Sequeira on Food Network, Archie Panjabi on The Good Wife and Reshma Shetty on Royal Pains. But by some odd coincidence, they all speak in British accents. Outsourced, on NBC, has lots of Indian accents, but then its setting is India (though it is shot in the US). CNBC in New York has an anchor with an unalloyed Australian accent, which is a step forward. But BBC is way ahead. They are truly global. (sidenote: they announced that they are shutting down their BBC Hindi service on shortwave. Apparently, shortwave costs too much.)

In the meanwhile, us Indian-Americans, we’ll just keep rolling our R’s. And our kids will grow up having fun at our expense.


  1. giri Rao says:

    Thanks, Basab, for this post. I’m just back from the Jaipur Literature Festival where we heard so many English and Hindi accents! It was interesting to note how many were relaxed about their accents; not trying to make it approximate some “standard accent”. Indeed, the Glaswegian James Kelman was emphatic that he wrote (and spoke) in a non-standard English deliberately, to upset assumptions about the legitimacy of one variant or another.

    To end with an anecdote, I’d sent the satirical number “Hotel Keralafonia” to a friend. He responded by saying that at a party,

    after a few drinks, I did a passable imitation of one of one of my Mallu teachers. It went down pretty well, with his own children adding to the hoots, but not as explosively as his own bemused response afterwards, “I never knew that Malyalis have an accent at all!”

    Vive la différence!


    1. Basab says:

      Vive la différence!

      Well said, Giri.

      Just FYI, if you put more than one link in the comment, my spam filter puts the comment away for my approval. Which is why your comment didn’t appear immediately.


  2. Amit says:

    One sitcom character that might interest you is Raj Kuthrapalli in The Big Bang Theory. Still not Indian enough, but sounds quite like a lot of Bhartiya accented people I know.

    But I guess part of the journey is going to be the current lot of us accepting our Indian accent as an acceptable way of conversing with the rest of the world, just as a French person does, or an eastern European does. I see people all around me who have a thick spent, despite having spent the first 20 years of their life in Mumbai/Delhi/Kolkata.


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