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Summer Postcard: Speech & Sound

Mark Zuckerberg in 2006.

HELLO THIS IS AN UPDATE.

BANGALORE, India—Once, I wrote a futuristic short story where everyone was implanted with a translator chip. No more struggling to communicate: When someone spoke anything at all in a language outside of your own, a robotic voice would relay the translation into your ears. The trick of this translator chip was that only if the speaker was using your language would you hear their actual voice. Thinking back on it now, I wonder whose voices I would hear — and who would hear me.

All my life, I have code-switched. Different linguistic patterns have either found their place in my speech, or stamped themselves onto me. It comes from growing up in changing settings: from a South Indian family, to schools with lots of North Indians and crisp Anglo-Indian-accented teachers, to a college in the United States. Unseen but always shimmering under the surface is the layer of colonial history in my schooling and Indian colloquial speech, from the way I spell to the words I choose. (Ironically, The Crimson will edit this piece so that it is in American English, which I do not write in.) On some days — most days, even — I feel proud of the way I can navigate these differences. On other days, it’s just confusing.

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There is no real, singular voice that defines me. That’s the funny thing: I can’t revert to my “default accent,” because I’m not sure what that means anymore. What does that mean for my identity? How do I sound to myself? I don’t know; if I pay too much attention to my internal monologue, it contorts itself into an accent that matches where I am. There is no such thing as “unaccented,” though. So my internal monologue cannot be a blank slate. If my voice is as malleable as clay, does that mean I am throwing away parts of the history that are supposed to be with me always?

Maybe this is why I’m so touchy about preserving the way I spell. It’s the easiest way to hold onto what I’ve been taught and condense it into something real, something simple. But it does not at all account for all the layers of my speech. I am still untangling those, word by word, and everyone I converse with must bear with that.

There’s only one thing you shouldn’t say to me after I’ve been away at college, or after the summer changes my voice: “You sound so — ” Fill in the blanks with “American,” or “British,” or just “different.” I know. The gears of my mind are already desperately working to smooth my accent into what you expect to hear. And who says you know what I really sound like, anyway?

Stuti R. Telidevara ’20, a Crimson Blog Chair, is an English concentrator in Cabot House.

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