Contagious inflections

Posted on December 9, 2010 | View 630

It's useful to catch accents.

Professor Henry Higgins' prescient observation in My Fair Lady that "the French don't care what they do, actually, as long as they pronounce it properly" was a beacon light for anyone heading for that languageproud nation.


Countless Indians tourists would vouchsafe the fact that as long they pronounced it in French, any foreign language was as good as another when it came to getting the message across.


Now Higgins' truism has gained a universal application, for it has been discovered that the most effective way to communicate is to speak in the same accent if not the same language.


Call it the phonetic justification of what has long been a dramatic tool, whether it is the faux French accents of the English TV comedy "Allo "Allo!" or the lilting southern strains of Mehmood's most famous character in Padosan, but a recent article in Psychological Science confirms that mimicking is the key to interlocution.


Dutch students find non-Dutch accents more double Dutch than their own, was the startling outcome of that study but Sasha Baron doing a Borat is not the idea.


Research finds that what works best is the subtle shifting of pronunciation towards the dominant accent to give an impression of commonality.


Hearteningly, it seems we humans do this instinctively: adapt our accents to whatever's going locally so that we are understood better.


That refreshing flexibility of inflection is evidenced in daily interactions in every polyphonic society, as we Indians will readily admit.


This should particularly boost the morale of the call centre industry in this country, whose penchant for trans-Atlantic accents has long been lampooned.


It certainly bolsters their theory that even a fake southern American twang is far more useful than a real southern Indian one when it comes to placating irate callers from Alabama or Mississippi.

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