Pranav Mistry was one of the speakers at IIT Bombay’s Techfest this year. He rose to fame in 2010 for his TED Talk on Sixth Sense, a wearable gestural interface that augments the physical world around us with digital information and lets us use natural hand gestures to interact with it (Description sourced from his website).

Since then, he has been in and out of limelight, and has generally been on the receiving end of a lot of (well deserved) love and admiration from Indians, especially because he comes off as a ‘son of the soil’. No where is this more obvious than when you hear him speak.

A few months ago, when Pranav Mistry announced the Samsung Galaxy Gear as the Director of Research of Samsung Research America, his accent was almost as much a topic of discussion on the internet as the technology he presented. It is true that Pranav speaks in a strong Gujarati accent (some internet sources say it’s a Kathiawadi Gujarati accent, but I don’t know enough about them to tell them apart), and discussions about Pranav’s accent aren’t new. He isn’t particularly fluent either, so his talks can be quite jarring even otherwise. I did see a few tweets suggesting that the video telecast of his Galaxy Gear presentation should have been subtitled, which is of course a very reasonable expectation, and which I think should be standard procedure for any talk aimed at an international audience, irrespective of the speaker’s accent.

There were several caustic comments on social media about the way he speaks, and counter-tweets to those defending Pranay and also criticizing those who change their accents when they go abroad.

Loads of sensible people did raise their voices against the tide of pointless criticism leveled against Pranav’s accent. But, among the many who rightly rose in Pranav’s defense were people who somehow saw his preservation of his childhood accent as some kind of virtue. Aakar Patel, for instance, wrote an article that criticized those who found Pranav’s accent embarrassing, and added:

Mistry is smart enough to make it to the world’s technology elite. And honest and confident enough not to change the way he pronounces words from the way he learnt them in his Palanpur school.

Judging Pranav based on his so-called non-posh accent is wrong, but it is equally wrong to suggest that preserving / maintaining one’s native accent is a sign of being true to one’s roots, whatever the hell that means, and that not doing so is in some sense selling out.

Linguistically speaking, everyone has an accent, but in everyday speak, people who sound different from how the rest of the crowd does are usually said to have an accent. Or, occasionally, anyone who doesn’t speak the standard / prestige dialect is said to have an accent.

As a language learning enthusiast, I usually pay keen attention to native speakers’ pronunciation and try to get as close to it as possible. For me, it’s a very happy moment indeed if a native speaker says that I sound almost like them. This works for most foreign languages, but not that much for English, because there’s hardly one variety of English1. Indian kids usually grow up learning Indian English, with their native accent superimposed over whatever the local English accent is. Personally, I’m usually a sort of accent chameleon, accommodating my speech to that of the listener. So, the way I’d speak to a native speaker of American English would be different from the way I’d speak to a native Japanese speaker talking in English.

People take on different accents for a variety of reasons. Sometimes, it’s just to make yourself easier to understand. Or to better assimilate with the group you are in. Or as a natural progression towards native fluency. And sometimes, it’s just an inevitable result of spending a lot of time exposed to other accents. Some people, however, tend to judge merely the presence of more than one accent as a bad thing, as if one is putting on a mask and hiding their true self. I find it hard to sympathize with such a position. I think there is nothing glorious about adopting a new accent, nor is there anything praiseworthy about keeping yours. It’s just a personal choice.

It is of course one thing if a person goes out of their way to speak in a different accent just to assert superiority or to sound condescending, but adopting accents that suit your audience (or, adopting a relatively ‘international’ accent which isn’t too strongly tempered by regional accents) sounds like a perfectly normal or natural thing to do. It is perfectly fine if Pranav prefers to stick to his native accent, but those who choose otherwise aren’t necessarily traitors.

A friend of mine very recently mentioned how an ex-IITM professor who’s now at MIT gave her talk in an Americanized accent, and how it pissed him off, because well, what was the point of her accent when she anyhow clearly looked and was ‘desi’ (Valley-speak for ‘Indian’). I found his anger rather misplaced. After all, she was addressing an American audience, so it’d make sense to speak in an American accent. I am sure the same person would speak pretty differently if she was delivering a talk at IITM.

To me, languages and accents are fascinating sources of diversity. It’s fun to examine your own, and it’s fun to pick up and learn those of people around you.

  1. There are multiple varieties of most languages, but English is unique in its tremendous spread and near-first-class status in several countries across many geographies and cultures. [return]