If The Accent Fits, Should We Wear It?

Struggling this morning with a thumping headache brought on by an accidental glue-sniffing incident (long story) I was rather concerned I wouldn’t be able to think of anything to blog about.

Getting the grey matter going was a slow job, until I opened an email from one of my guardian angels forwarding an article from The Economist she thought I might like. Entitled Accents: Did I hear you raht? I knew immediately what it was about, making me smile broadly; although this proved too much activity for the facial muscles for first thing in the morning.

I read the article with delight, as it’s a subject close to my heart crossing countries, continents and cultures.

For many people the way we use language, how we speak, the accents we have, tell us so much about another person, whether we realise it or not.

Growing up in England it was something you learned instinctively from early childhood; the tiny nuances which gave a new friend, colleague or prospective employer the discreet clues to who you were, where you were from. The subtleties of background, education, all those things the English get wound up about.

As a child you copy the people around you, it’s only as you venture out into the world you realise other people may speak differently to you, use different words, put the emphasis on different syllables.

In the days when people lived within a small area for most of their lives it wasn’t an issue but as communities changed and people moved around for education and job opportunities our regional accents became more obvious to ourselves and others. We all knew how we should speak; the BBC was the epitome of correctly spoken English to which we should have aspired but rarely did.

My first awareness that English was spoken differently in other places was going to university. I’d only moved 40 miles north of my home town but it could have been a different planet. Going to the bakery was a nightmare; the familiar words for loaves and cakes did not apply. Asking for a “cheese cob” I’d be met with blank looks, only for a light to go on with someone who’d shout,

“oohhh, the lass means a cheese barm cake!”

It was also at this time I ran into the vocabulary that, for some, defined the social class you came from. Whether you used a serviette or napkin, or had a lounge, sitting room or drawing room at home, sat on a settee, couch or sofa, whether you used a lavatory, toilet or loo.

I remember being mocked mercilessly by friends who considered themselves socially superior to me, whose softer, elongated vowels and correct vocabulary made me feel small and stupid.

Then I attended linguistics lectures as part of a course and was blown away by what was taught; I’ve been fascinated and intrigued by accents ever since. The lecturer was one of the smartest, most enthusiastic, passionate people I’ve ever heard speak. He turned language into a living and evolving entity, and delivered his lectures in the broadest, flattest northern accent I’d ever heard.

It was the first time I’d consciously realised how you spoke didn’t matter so long as you had something to say, and could communicate well.

Of course there are times we change our accents or vocabulary to fit in or be understood, mimicking the voices around us, and recent research has proved exactly that, although I can’t find the darn article I was reading, but trust me, research has been done. (This is, after all, a blog not research paper.)

Whilst it’s always seemed a particularly British thing, I’m realising every country has acceptable and unacceptable ways of speaking; of being socially acceptable to your peers.

The Economist article is about the southern US, and it’s true, have a southern accent and the rest of America regards you as mentally sub-normal, completely uneducated and socially unacceptable. (For the record it’s completely understandable to me that the writer of the article would confuse hearing “wife’s name” as “last name”.)

Interestingly, the City of New Orleans, as southern as you can get, has an accent very similar to that of New York, which makes those northerners squirm when it’s pointed out – they tend not to mock quite as much as the rest of America.

As an aside I’ve always felt particularly comfortable in the USA, where my short vowels fit in and Americans, for the most part, can’t make the same differentiation between accents as a native English speaker. The only time I start to panic is when I meet another Brit abroad and you can see the social antennae start to twitch as soon as you’re introduced. I am not my accent, but there are people who would make assumptions based on it.

A dear friend, who is friends with me despite everything, worries herself silly about such things. She is English, married to an American and has lived in the US for 30 years. On a layover in the Netherlands on the way to the UK she stayed with us. That evening, watching the BBC news from England, (via satellite) she turned to me, appalled, and said

“oh my god, when I left England everyone at the BBC spoke beautifully; I come back and everyone on the television is speaking like you! What is the country coming to?” I got the impression this was not a good development as far as she was concerned.

Here in the Netherlands it’s just the same. I’ll say a Dutch word only to have Harry look at me in horror and ask,

“who on earth told you to pronounce it like that? You sound like you come from Leiden!”

According to him, the only fluent dutch speaker in the house, anyone with any intelligence can tell if someone comes from Leiden, The Hague, Rotterdam, even Amsterdam, just from their accent. Whether this is entirely true we’re not sure, but it could explain why I have difficulty getting to grips with the lingo.

Is how we speak so important these days? With so many people moving and traveling globally and being multi-lingual shouldn’t we be more concerned with what’s being said than whether the accent is right?

There’s nothing I love more than meeting someone new with an accent or twang I’ve never heard before; it’s music to my ears. I want to know they’re from, listen for the faint traces of exotic countries in the rhythms of their speech, the unusual lilt hinting at the places they’ve lived or passed through.

Give me the beating heart, the warmth and humour of an accent over the clinical and precise every time.

About wordgeyser

Our anglo/american family used to live in four countries (USA, Canada, UK and the Netherlands) on two continents, separated by distance, time zones, circumstance and cultures. It has been a scary, enriching, challenging place to be. The only things guaranteed to get us through were a sense of humour and the amazing people met along the way. . . This year everything changed with a move for us from the Netherlands, – and a move along with us for our son and his wife from the UK – to Houston, Texas, the same city as our daughter. With our youngest in Vancouver, Canada, we are now all living on the same continent. How this happened, and more importantly why, will be the subject of this ongoing blog...
This entry was posted in England and Things English, Expat Experiences, USA and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to If The Accent Fits, Should We Wear It?

  1. Byron Eaton says:

    Ay up me duck that were rate good.

  2. I love this post! It is so true what you say. My problem is I tend to pick up the accent of where I am living. For example, a few years ago I spent a year in New Zealand and came back speaking like a Kiwi; now I live in Bristol and I sometimes say words that sound ‘Bristolian’ or West Country. Half the time I don’t notice I am doing it. I wonder whether this happens because I was born and brought up in Holland so I didn’t have a regional accent to start with (I think someone once told me that when I speak Dutch I have a posh account, so it definitely occurs in other countries)…this is an interesting topic!

    • wordgeyser says:

      Kiwi mixed with west country – what a great combination! Went on a school trip once with and we joined up with a school from Birmingham. It was weeks before we all lost our “brummie”accents after we got home, much to the despair of our parents!

  3. Jane says:

    It reminds me of when we lived in the North East of England, and a southern friend asked when we were going to start elocution lessons for the children so that they would not be burdened with a Teesside accent. Our social standing dropped a fair few notches with them when they realized we had never considered it an issue. Give me regional variations any day…

    • wordgeyser says:

      Kind of stops you in your tracks when that happens. You have to wonder where some people are coming from . . . did make me laugh out loud – so typically English!

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