Introduction: Listening for Accents in Delhi

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Hello readers! I arrived in India a few days ago and am excited to begin my research and start blogging for CASI as the recipient of their Travel Funds for Research Award. I am a PhD student in the department of Anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania in my third year. I am a Wisconsin native. However, I also feel a strong connection with Delhi, as I did my Masters in linguistics from Jawaharlal Nehru University here and have been back and forth between Philly and Dilli (Delhi in Hindi) many times since I started my dissertation project. My sub-field of study is Linguistic Anthropology, which is the study of how language shapes our social worlds. Specifically, I research accents of Indian English and the accent training industry in the National Capital Region of India.

Delhi is an exciting place to be studying language. They have a saying here: “दिल्ली किसी की नहीं है” (dilli kisi ki nahi hai ‘Delhi belongs to no one’). Everyone you meet in Delhi comes from somewhere else. There are migrants from all over India here, each with their own linguistic repertoire, though the languages you hear most often are Hindi-Urdu, Punjabi and English. Many of those who live in Delhi have come here from every corner of India seeking work, and many them end up in the Business Process Outsourcing and Information Technology (BPO-IT) industry, working for third party companies that service international clientele. The BPO-IT industry is a huge employer in India (3.7 million jobs) and is the largest contributor to Indian exports out of any other sector (38%).  The Delhi area is one of the biggest hubs of the BPO industry. In particular, Gurugram (formally known as Gurgaon) has shot up as a hub of call center activity since 1991.

One of the results of the demand for English speaking employees is an ever-growing voice and accent training industry. In this industry, trainers attempt to deal with the challenges in communication that companies face when moving their phone bank operations to India.  For this reason, new employees go though a training process where they used to learn to speak with foreign accents (most commonly American Standard English and Received Pronunciation. One of the interesting things that has emerged over the past decade, however, is a new standard of accent training which is neither British nor American: the Neutral Accent. In my research, I investigate the social implications of this accent and its features: where it is used, by whom and for what purpose. I am partnered with a skills training company and will be observing their training over the next couple of months, but I will also be following them outside of the office to track their accents in different spheres of interaction. I will be keeping my ears open as I watch news shows and interact with different people in Delhi, seeking to discover new patterns in how different people speak! So, follow me this summer as I follow the accents of Delhi!

 

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About Kristina Nielsen

I am a PhD student in the department of Anthropology at the University of Philadelphia. I'm originally from the town of Mount Horeb, Wisconsin, but have lived in Philadelphia for a few years and was living in New Delhi before that while completing my Masters in linguistics. The work I do is in the sub-field of Linguistic Anthropology. I study how language impacts how we, as humans, go through the world. Specifically, I study a specific accent of Indian English that is used in the call center industry and its social significance. This summer, I'll be investigating this accent and its ties to other accents that are associated with different class, region and group identities.