Tag Archives: accent


If you learn a new language as an adult, or if you learn it as a child from non-native speakers, you will have an accent. There is a scientifically proven reason behind this. Each language has phonemes (basic sound units) specific to it. You can discern only those phonemes that you are exposed to as a baby. By the time you are about eight months old, it is already too late for your brain to pick up new phonemes. Without the complete set of phonemes of a language, an accent, however slight, is unavoidable.

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Indians pronounce the word “poem” as poyem. Today, my daughter wrote one for her friend’s birthday and she told me about her “poyem”. So I corrected her and asked her to say it as po-em, despite the fact that I also say it the Indian way during my unguarded moments. That got me thinking — why do we say it that way? I guess it is because certain diphthongs are unnatural in Indian languages. “OE” is not a natural thing to say, so we invent a consonant in between.

The French also do this. I had this funny conversation with a French colleague of mine at Geneva airport long time ago during my CERN days. Waiting at the airport lounge, we were making small talk. The conversation turned to food, as French conversations often do (although we were speaking in English at that time). My colleague made a strange statement, “I hate chicken.” I expressed my surprise told her that I was rather fond of white meat. She said, “Non, non, I hate chicken for lunch.” I found it even stranger. Was it okay for dinner then? Poultry improved its appeal after sunset? She clarified further, “Non, non, non. I hate chicken for lunch today.”

I said to myself, “Relax, you can solve this mystery. You are a smart fellow, CERN scientist and whatnot,” and set to work. Sure enough, a couple of minutes of deep thinking revealed the truth behind the French conundrum. She had chicken for lunch that day. The “IA” as in “I ate” is not a natural diphthong for the French, and they insert an H in between, which is totally strange because the French never say H (or the last fourteen letters of any given word, for that matter.) H is a particularly shunned sound — they refuse to say it even when they are asked to. The best they can do is to aspirate it as in the textbook example of “les haricots”. But when they shouldn’t say it, they do it with surprising alacrity. I guess alacrity is something we all readily find when it comes to things that we shouldn’t be doing.