The Accents of Transplants 2: Adolescents

Recently, the Daily Show‘s fearless Aasif Mandvi made headlines when a satirical interview he conducted with Republican precinct chairman Don Yelton led to the man resigning from his post. I get the sense, from watching the cringe-inducing video of the event, that Mandvi’s Indian name and slightly peculiar accent may have elicited Yelton’s blatant xenophobia and racism.

In fact, Mandvi grew up in Bradford, England (although he was born in Mumbai, he apparently only lived there as a baby*). He moved to the United States at the age of 16, and thus he’s noteable for being a transplant who left his native England in late adolescence, rather than childhood. Here’s a clip of Mandvi speaking (which contains some mildly ribald humor):

Mandvi speaks with a mostly American-sounding accent, but with a slightly unusual quality, subtle enough that it can take several listens to notice it. The most obvious point is that his accent isn’t 100% rhotic; he occasionally drops the /r/ in unstressed syllables, and will sometimes exhibit non- or weakened rhoticity in stressed ones (for instance, “are” at the :15 mark). You’ll also note that the “short a” vowel in words like “back” (at 1:25) is slightly laxer than it would be in General American English.

Intriguingly, though, I don’t hear much of Northern England in his speech, although admittedly the hazy details of Mandvi’s situation while in Bradford makes it hard to deduce how “Northern” his accent would have been in childhood (a Guardian article describes him as having attended both a state-funded “community school” and an independent prep school).

It is clear, however, that Mandvi exemplifies one way transplants can sound when they’ve made a cross-Atlantic move in their secondary school years. His speech is mostly American, yet with subtle and inconsistent holdovers from an earlier model.

As I’ve mentioned in a similar post, however, transplant accents are a sort of case-by-case phenomenon. Notably, the actor John Mahoney (of Frasier fame) moved from Northern England to Illinois at around the same age as Mandvi, yet I detect virtually nothing English in his accent. (Although a strikingly “meta” moment on Frasier revealed that he can still slip back into his original “voice” pretty easily).

The point being, the results of moving from one place to another in one’s teenage years can produce very different results depending on the circumstances. Will one maintain features of their “original” accent at this age? Or will their speech be wiped clean forever by adulthood? I’m not sure what factors predict the answers to those questions.

*Although we’re obviously talking about an enormous region of the world, I generally find it uncommon to encounter Americans and Britons born in the Indian subcontinent who exhibit strong non-English speech influences if they left at such an early age. I’m not sure why this differs from, say, those with Spanish- or Chinese-speaking parents, who sometimes (though not always) retain some of the prosody and phonotactics of those languages even if they were born in America.


About Ben

Ben T. Smith launched his dialect fascination while working in theatre. He has worked as an actor, playwright, director, critic and dialect coach. Other passions include linguistics, urban development, philosophy and film.
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14 Responses to The Accents of Transplants 2: Adolescents

  1. Scot Colford says:

    I’m not sure John Mahoney is such a good comparison. He played such a strong, dialect-specific character on Frasier, that much of his speech may have been intentional. And certainly in speech training as a young actor, he would have been schooled in general American. (I certainly lost much of my southwestern Ohio dialect in college.) And also, you didn’t provide a sample of him speaking out of character, so I’m unsure of his comfortable daily dialect.

    Mandvi on the other hand, while also a performer, seems more of a showman than an “actor’s actor” (no offense meant) and plays quite peculiar roles like his one on The Daily Show and Ali Hakim in Oklahoma! So that’s a little different from Mahoney.

  2. dw says:

    One British feature I detect is the absence of unreleased word-final /t/s. His final /t/s are always either audibly released, or covered by the first consonant of the next word. In an American of his age, I would expect several unreleased final /t/s.

  3. Pat says:

    If you watch enough episodes of Frasier, you will eventually hear mistakes in Mahoney’s American accent, especially with R.

    • Pat says:

      In fact, I think I hear a mistake even in the YouTube video you linked to. He says, “Well you’re always whining about wanting to change [jə hɛːɹ].” That’s hard to hear because it’s fast, but it sounds like there’s no r-coloring in the unstressed your. Don’t get me wrong though. I’m not saying his American accent isn’t good.

    • Griff says:

      Also later in the video he says, “I’ll pay [fə ðə] damn haircut…” The unstressed for is [fə]. I’m also not saying his American accent isn’t good though.

  4. Kevin says:

    John Mahoney’s Northern English accent sounds more authentic than Jane Reeves’. Which makes sense: I see that she grew up in Essex and Sussex, so her natural accent is southern, not northern.

    That said, she now lives in LA, so her accent has taken on a US tinge, as you’ll hear in this BBC interview: (She also talks about Daphne’s accent in Frasier.)

    Getting back to the transplant question, I do think you need to take into account how much of the change is conscious, as opposed to unconscious. There’s a big difference between picking up an accent and deliberately changing your accent to blend in (I fall into the latter category).

    Conversely, some people deliberately hang on to the original accent and consciously make efforts to resist any change. I once heard Julie Andrews say in an interview that she really tried hard to retain her English accent, even after decades of living in California.

    Then there are those people who seem incapable of changing their accent, no matter how many years they live in a new country. I remember a distant aunt who lived in London for almost 50 years, but still had a strong Kerry (south-west Ireland) accent.

    • Nico says:

      I often get the impression that Americans who spend a long time in the UK hardly ever lose their accent while British and Aussie expats in the US seem to take on some American qualities quite easily. But I wonder if Americans avoid picking up local features in the UK so that they don’t give the impression of mocking the local accent?

      • Ngamudgi says:

        I think what you say is true about Australians and British expats picking up American accents easily. On the other hand, there are some noticeable exceptions. Rupert Murdoch, for instance, retains his general Australian accent despite living many years in the US (and taking out US citizenship).

  5. Sidney Wood says:

    My guess is that adolescents and adults have to work consciously on an acquired accent, whether it’s for the stage or for life. And that must include a decision to acquire the accent. I don’t know how much room that leaves for drifting unconsciously into a new accent. What I recall from school, teenagers who joined us stayed Scots or Northerners. The people named in this post were know, or assumed, to have taken accent coaching.

  6. Delores Rich says:

    Born/raised in Tampa. Lived in Florida, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Wisconsin. University trained in stage speech, have done numerous accents, tend to idiosyncratically pronounce certain words. “Mid-Atlantic” learned in graduate training, once thought standard for performing classics in US. Not sure if it is standard anymore.

  7. Tom says:

    I seem to detect a bit of a New York accent in Mandvi’s speech, as if he transferred the non-rhoticity from his former British accent to fit in in New York.

  8. Matt says:

    I’ve noticed the changing “transplant” accent even in more subtle, “regional” cases- like moving from Canada to the U.S. An example would be Howie Mandel. Obviously it’s not as severe as a british person’s accent turning American, but if you listen to a 1984 interview with him and then one from this year, while he basically almost sounds the same- you can hear how his northern canadian “twang” has been kind of watered over the years. His “O’s” for example in words like “know” sound less “sing-y”. His accent really doesn’t sound that different from someone from California, I even hear interestingly like a little jewish New York blended in almost.

  9. Matt says:

    Not sure why they both didn’t go through. This was the 1984 one.