Why indeed? This question sounds almost nonsensical. After all which native speaker of a language other than English, who learnt English in adulthood, speaks English without a “strong accent”? Yet this question was posed to me by a half Italian-half Spanish friend recently whose own accent in English is nothing to write home about. He clearly found something “strong” in the manner in which an Indian he spoke in English to pronounced the words. Maybe it was me.
I know the questioner is a fairly well-travelled guy. He has heard how ze peupawl fxom fxaaNs spek oNglays. (Read the /N/ as a nasal and /x/ as the fricative – like ‘ch’ as in German or in the Scottish pronunciation of “loch”). Or how other assorted Europeans bring their own phonetic baggage to English shores. Yet he singled out the Indian accent for its “strength”. It would be easy for a brownie like me to ascribe this to his white European closet racism, but I think that may be a tad unfair. So I thought I’d write on why I think his question may rest on more objective (linguistic) grounds than some people of my tribe may give him credit for.
It is obvious that Indian accent draws on a different phonetic inventory (compared to say, Italian or French) when re-mapping the sounds of English. Indian languages can be tonal and nasal (like Punjabi) or use retroflexes and diphthongs heavily (like Tamil) and these substrate effects persist when the speakers of these languages try English. Note that Punjabi uses retroflexes amply too.
I think that lay people typically refer to the retroflex consonants when referring to how “strong” the accent is. Retroflexes typically form 10-20% of the (substrate) phonetic inventory of most North Indian (IA) languages, and an even higher percentage in South Indian languages of the Dravidian family. These are the “hard” consonants spoken by curling up the tongue to touch the palate and used in an overwhelmingly larger proportion in the Subcontinent than by speakers of any other language. This points to them being the tell-tale linguistic signature of arguably the oldest cosmopolitan culture of South Asia. Perhaps echoes of IVC speech…
A major feature of the Indian accent of English is the re-mapping of English alveolar stops /t/ and /d/ to dental retroflexes /T/ and /D/. I have had the chance to ask Indians of various linguistic regions and backgrounds on how they think English alveolar stops ought to be pronounced and almost always the mode of articulation is retroflexive. The people (esp the educated ones) typically insist they are pronouncing the consonants as correctly as the native English speakers and don’t quite realize how deeply ingrained this articulation meme is in them.
I liken the hardness of the Indian retroflex to how some versions of the over-rolled American /r/ sound very jarring to the ears. Other European languages like Swedish have retroflexes too and usual caricatures of Swedish-speech involve their use of retroflexes. However, they aren’t as ubiquitous as in Indian languages and represent innovations due to natural drift (rather than inherited substratum).
The retroflex consonants or mUrdhanya (as known in Sanskrit phonology) are there in the earliest Vedic speech. They are found in Eastern Iranic languages too, e.g. in Pashto, spoken inside the sub-continent. The best explanation for the ubiquity of retroflexes in the Indian sub-continent is the substrate effect from now-extinct northern Dravidian languages.
Sanskrit grammarians of yore recognized and mapped the whole mUrdhanya series: [ T, Th, D, Dh, N, R, RR ]. The aspirates /Th/ and /Dh/ are clear examples of the linguistic syncreticism of old IA speakers, who aspirated the retroflex phonemes too (aspiration being an Indo-Aryan speciality and totally absent in Dravidian languages). Why should we call this a Dravidian substrate, you may ask? Because Dravidian is retroflex heaven if there ever was one! And the probability that the entire retroflex series was innovated (like in the Swedish example) conditional on the existence of millions of Dravidian speakers in the geographical neighbourhood is indeed minuscule. So a much more parsimonious explanation is that speakers of some North-Indian Dravidian language switched to Indo-Aryan Prakrits (and Eastern-Iranic dialects, directly or indirectly) over a period of time from 1700-1500 BCE onwards.
It is quite possible that in the early Vedic period, the people were bi-lingual in Dravidian and IA and later dropped Dravidian to favour IA exclusively. The process is similar to the rise in the use of Urdu in Pakistan, which is spoken by native Punjabi speakers or sons/daughters of Punjabi speakers (who may or may not be bilingual). This gives Pakistani Urdu phonology its substrate Punjabi tonal accent and preponderance of nasal phonology, that is absent in the standard Urdu of Lucknow/Allahabad etc.
In short, the retroflex consonants are our identity in as much the same way as rhotic-lateral conflation (overlap of /l/ & /r/ articulation) is East Asian and they bind us together – across vast distances and differences of caste, creed and religion – like nothing else does, except maybe our brownness.
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