Are you Bending Over for Whitey, or Just Talented?

When your friends and loved ones return from abroad they often bring along gifts, goodies and some rather interesting, and at times exaggerated tales. Occasionally, one or two may also bring along a brand new accent. This has always struck me as curious since what an American or Englishman cannot achieve in a lifetime spent in the East, is promptly undertaken by one of “us” who spends just a few semesters in the West.

Is this necessarily a bad thing? We Sri Lankans left behind to fret about the dying economy and intensifying ethnic conflict, often view with suspicion and contempt those of our kind who achieve the feat of successfully adopting a foreign accent. “Oh gosh, guess who came back speaking like Yankee Doodle?” or “I didn’t know the stiff-upper-lip was contagious?” are common sentiments articulated in private.

However, I find that the phenomenon of accent switching can be attributed to two main reasons.

  1. Our Colonial Hangover
  2. Our Hospitable Nature

The reason many of us find ourselves switching to a ripe British accent as soon as we set foot on those green hills of England, is primarily due to the fact that a Whiteman’s accent is seen to be of a slightly higher and more prestigious standard than our own. It also has a lot to do with self esteem and how comfortable one is with the way he or she articulates the English language. Studying or living abroad is not necessarily the reason one speaks with this accent, but rather the valid excuse one uses to justify the switch.

The second reason I have listed relates to the most common excuse given by those who engage in an accent makeover. It is simply that persons abroad fail to understand the Sri Lankan accent thus requiring us to change our accent in order to facilitate greater understanding. This of course is entirely true as I have experienced it myself. However, what is curious is that Westerners living here for decades on end never seem to make this same switch. In fact those of us who speak to them mysteriously alter our own accents, momentarily adopting a strangely refined British or American tone without even the slightest affiliation to those nations.

Some of you may call this “doormat-like behaviour”, but I would like to remind you that not all people can achieve this feat. It takes true talent to speak in multiple accents without even the odd acting lesson for assistance. Some of us choose not to change our accents, while others simply can’t help the change. However, time and again we have proven our potential for flexibility.

I find it more likely that this whole accent switching maneuver is part of a common potential possessed by all Sri Lankans to morph in order to fit in better with the outside world. This is probably why we can get along with everyone else except ourselves.

Thank you for reading.

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~ by Archangel on June 20, 2007.

34 Responses to “Are you Bending Over for Whitey, or Just Talented?”

  1. Lived in the US for about 19 yrs and have found no necessity to have “foregin” accent.
    But then I might be biased because i think my Colombo school accent is “cultured” and “smooth” and not readily identifiable with South Asia (read India)

  2. so since we are such an accommodating people we like to switch accents so that others can better understand what we are saying. May I ask whether you start speaking English like the chinese do when in china, or the koreans do when in Korea?

    Also, when one comes back after a few years or so, within a few months one should be able to revert back to old mother tongue english right? since there is no need to speak in an accent cause the people here haven’t changed since you were last here…..

  3. Yes La! 🙂

  4. I met someone who had studied in India and had picked up traces of an Indian accent.

    I have heard (on Television) a British national who had moved to the US, he had parts of a Yankee drawl.

    I think a lot of it has to do with acceptance. When I am abroad on holiday people keep turning aound to see who this person with the strange accent is.(I have not lived abroad for any length of time)

    The question I have is why do teh white dominions, people of British stock, in Canada, NZ, SA and Australia speak with different accents? In a wider definition, the US can be included as well.

    And why is it that there is a similarity between the Canadian and the US accents? Ditto for NZ and Australian.

    ANd why do Indians and Pakistani’s sound similar when they speak? Even the Sl accent is not far removed from the Indian accent?

    Is accent a regional phenomenon?

  5. Not sure if I’m imagining but some europeans married to Sri Lankans have a slight Sri Lankan lilt.

  6. ah yes that reminds me, there was thsi German girl who had spent sometime in the US. After about a year in SL she said she spoke to some US friends and they said her US accent had disappeared an dshe had traces of a SL accent.

  7. Only people who aren’t confident with themselves or people who don’t like the fatherland grow accents and bend over to whitey And the reason whitey rarely loses his accent is because there’s always reinforcement from hollywood while we people on the periphery of whitey have no such forces helping us hold on to our roots It doesn’t take talent it just takes a lack of balls or a lack of roots to lose your individual accent

  8. I’ve lived in England for 3yrs, America for 1yr, now Scotland for 1yr. During this time I have not to my knowledge picked up any of these accents. I do admit I’ve picked up a few phrases, such as the habit of saying ‘wee’ to mean ‘little’ as the Scottish tend to do and so on:)

    Some people get the new accent within a week, I find it particularly prevalent amongst my peers who went to Aussie. Must be something in the water there!

  9. I’ve spent 8 years out off the country, 4 in England and 4 in the US but still have my Sri Lankan accent. Like Darwin I’ve picked up a few sayings like knackered and my personal favourite wanker, but no accent.

    Funnily as Darwin mentioned it is largely the Aussie’s that have the accent, I’ve known people who’ve come back after a month sounding like Steve Irwin.

    Jackpoint, just an anecdote, my cousins who’se parents are French and Sri Lankan speak English with a Sri Lankan accent despite growing up in France…cos of their mom…so maybe family has more to do with it than region (at least in this case)?

  10. I was under the impression that it was the opposite. The Yanks are the ones who end up with a heavy american accent.

    N, think because English is not the primary language in France, the only person who speaks english is their mother, so they speak like their mother.

    Also notice, people who are not already fluent in English in Sri Lanka, tend to adopt the accent of the country they go to.

  11. Anon, i guess that would make sense…just so weird that they don;t have a french accent and the sri lankan is so pronounced.

    The American expats don’t seem to have as much of an American accent, at least the one’s I know. Even the Brit expats I knew didn’t have as much of an accent unless they grew up there. But I’ve run into so many kids who’ve gone to Aussie who’ve come back with accents.

    I remember one particular incident vividly at Holiday Inn in the wee hours of the morning where what I thought was an Aussie accent was actually a Talluwattogode accent. 🙂

  12. I think it is important to make a distinction between those who adopt a certain manner of speaking as a result of years of living abroad, and those who gain an accent in very short period of time. The latter must be one that is contrived especially in the case of individuals who study in the West for a few years and return. While on the one hand it could be justified that a person returning from studies abroad gains a momentary accent simply since he or she is used to speaking to foreigners, on the other hand, the continuation of such an accent even years after returning to Sri Lanka seems suspicious.

    However, there are a number of variables I have not dealt with, which includes age, length of time spent abroad and fluency in the language. These may also impact on whether or not an individual changes his or her accent.

    Thank you for reading.

  13. Accents are what make people unique. So what if you borrow a little from here and a little from there? I mean when we go abroad sometimes our dress sense changes, we start wearing cardigans, shawls, boots, “pottus”, etc. We widen our horizons when it comes to what we eat, our palettes become cosmopolitan, we eat and drink stuff we have never touched before. People don’t have a problem with that generally, so why do they have issues with people who come back home with accents?

  14. accents depend mainly on the company you are in. for exapmple:

    if you are a sri lankan in say a country where english is the first language ie; US,UK or Aus, your manner of speaking adapts so as to maintain a comprehensible dialogue among its natives.

    many second generation sri lankan expats speak to their parents in a very sri lankan accent although they have lived all their lives abroad.

    are we not fortuante that ours is not as strong or heavy as an indian or pakistani. it is mocked to the point of riducle. refer : ‘ thunk youuu cum agggaain’

    it is a social dynamic issue as well refferring back to my first point where most sri lankans do have the gift of the gab when it comes conforming to the way another person speaks.

    should we be fortuante that we are at a very advanced evolurionary state where we have grappled with issues of globalization to such an extent that we can talk any way we want to?

    i personally admit to adopting such an accent when amidst the natives in this foreign land. i do not however express any pseudo need to use it in sri lanka. as i must admit a few brief tourist students have, much to the common embarrasment of all english speaking sri lankans in sri lanka and abroad.

    what is my point? i have none. just that im glad im not indian.

  15. ADD!!! u’r bak??? oh god it’s been a while hasnt it??
    i’ve lived in the U.S for most of my life and my accent is preeeeety american. and YES! i hav noticed that my friends here sumtimes speak with a slight american accent when talkin to me…i laugh at them sumtimes but i know its not done on purpose. it just happens. think its coz sri lankans think its cooler to speak wt an accent. that’s bs coz i know plenty of americans who speak like all wrong. most of the colombo crowd’s grammar is waaaaaay better. but still u head into any club in colombo and ppl hav accents that i think r put on. part of pickin up ladies may be…but it’s a bit sad. hahahaha

  16. you people are just jealous sad losers.

  17. I’m starting to wonder if any of you have really even stepped on a plane! People abroad speak in an accent because that’s the right way to speak the language. I don’t see any of you tolerating Sinhalese or Tamil being spoken all wrong! People from the states, UK and ozzy don’t like their language being spoken wrong either. So we have to make adjustments. We’re in their territory. None of you seem to know what it is like for a young Asian kid to fit in in a place like North Carolina! Ignorant morons.

  18. oh take a chill pill pal! haha. whoever goes to north carolina anyway?!?!?! loser.

  19. Isabell, oh spoken like a true teenage blond. I wont waste my time with you.

    Jack point, Darwin…lol…I don’t think you know the first thing about living abroad.

  20. Kanchana, just curious. Which is the right way to speak the language? is it the Ozzie way, British way, American way or Bermudan way?

  21. Niran, if you had half a wit, you wouldn’t ask me such a stupid question.

    Which is the correct way to speak Sinhalese? The Russian way, the Egyptian way or the Sri Lankan way?

    If you can get your tiny mind around that question, may be you would stumble onto the answer for yours.

  22. Well, I am admittedly confused Kanchana. First you say that Americans, ozzies and Brits don’t like their language being spoken wrong and then you insinuate that perhaps the only way to speak English is the way the English(and not other brits) do.

    Perhaps if you can make a half coherent statement, I can attempt to wrap my mind around it. Otherwise, it’s clear you are a fake ass, self hating, Asian version of the house nigger. Go wrap your white trash loving mind around that one.

  23. Niran….missing the point like a house on fire I see. English is the first language of Australians, Americans and the English. Like Tamil is spoken by Muslims and Tamils in Sri Lanka and India. The way Tamil is spoken elsewhere by non-Tamils is not correct if it doesn’t match the original way it is spoken by Muslims and Tamils.
    If every TOM, DICK and NIRAN gets to speak the English language any which way he pleases, the language will suffer in the end. While it might be ok with you to speak in a Sri Lankan accent, do you feel the same way about a Chinese accent or a Spanish accent when the English words are almost inaudible? I doubt it. We can’t draw the fucking line if we let everyone develop their own accents.
    SO THAT’S WHY only western accents should be tolerated. It’s THIER language NOT ours. We should only have a say on how Sinhalese and Tamil is spoken. Common sense, smarty pants.

  24. Thought everyone would enjoy this link.

  25. Hahaha some of these comments are hilarious.

    Have you noticed how Amitabh Bachchan speaks with the strongest possible American accent? The first time I heard him I thought wtf.

    And on that argument about the proper way to speak English maybe Kanchana should watch some Allo Allo to lighten up. ‘Good Moaning’ 😉

  26. good work

  27. kanchana, what about scottish people who don’t speak gaelic. they speak english with a strong accent and its not the communities first language. also the jamaican accent would be the correct way to speak it because english is their first language too…ya maan?

  28. @Niran
    Exactly! I see you’re not as stupid as I first thought you were. Good for you maaan!

    @bear
    Do you actually have a point or am I suppose to sit in front of the tv watching sitcoms to stoop down to your level!?

  29. Kanchana, so which accent is the right way to speak English? American, British, Ozzie, Bermudan or Jamaican?

  30. ummm… can we stop calling Aussies : ‘Ozzies’ :s is everyone trying to sound cool?

  31. can we also stop calling Australians ‘Aussies’ Jim?

  32. yeah why not niran. you start. in the whole spirit of being PC ive never heard the phrase ‘missing the point like a house on fire’ kanchana? nice one

  33. Get lives, people. GET LIVES!

  34. Oh dear it’s such a shame that the majority in Sri Lanka whom have never travelled abroad speak with the same monolithic tone and elecution, they all sound the same in tonal quality how boring. Your comments simply celebrate that boredom ! An accent is a personal thing and a way for the person to assert their individuality something that is often scorned upon in this country at least in private. Maybe if Sri Lankans had accents of their own they might not be so disdaneful of the “jhonny foreigner” accents their expat collegues have adopted to “fit in” when “fitting in” in sri lanka involves nothing but being a sheep and talking the same way as x million other people living here.

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