LOST IN TRANSLATION
After several embarrassing “I’m sorry, I don’t understand,” encounters, Kate Birch needs a lesson in regional British accents
The other day I had to interview a man over the phone. The gentleman, who was from Birmingham, England‘s secondlargest city, which is a mere 60 miles away from where I live, was lovely, but the interview was a complete disaster because I couldn’t understand a word he was saying.
England may well be a small nation, but we have hundreds of variations on regional English, with some so strong that comprehending someone supposedly speaking the same language can be nigh on impossible.
Some of the strongest and most distinctive (read incomprehensible and irritating) accents come from Birmingham, Liverpool and Newcastle.
People from these cities even have their own label – Brummies, Scousers and Geordies, respectively. Get all three of them in the same room and I would challenge anyone to understand a word.
This isn’t just me being judgmental. People with strong regional accents are pigeonholed and looked down on – and not necessarily just by snooty society either. So while someone from Essex will typically sport enough fake tan to turn a shade of turmeric, they will still look down on ‘thick’ Scousers.
Yes, a recent poll by ITV News showed that us Brits think the Scouse accent sounds the least intelligent (think Cilla Black and Wayne Rooney) with Brummies coming a close second.
But it is terrible to be judged by your accent, to be socially stereotyped because you sound different. I come from a region of the UK known as the West Country, a land where everyone sounds like a pirate.
To be fair, it’s not a particularly pleasant sound. In fact, it’s so unpleasant that my mother nagged it out of me at a very young age. And with good reason too, because even Star
Wars villain Darth Vader would have been a laughing stock with the Ewoks had he come from the West Country.
David Prowse, the actor who played Vader, certainly had the physical presence for such a role, but his West Country voice was not at all appropriate. Little surprise, then, that American James Earl Jones was brought in to add some voice venom to Vader.
But despite its ‘don’t take me seriously’ vibe, the West Country accent is rather in fashion right now. Yes,
Long-term expats began to lose their vocal quirks, with many speaking a hybrid version of English
much like fashion labels, holiday destinations and dog breeds, regional British accents are trend-based, with a particular accent de rigeur one minute and down and out the next.
Up until around 25 years ago you would hardly ever hear a regional accent in the British media, and certainly not on the BBC. Back then, it was all Queen’s English – a neutral, bland concoction known as Received Pronunciation.
But then it became cool to have a dialect, to be one of the ‘common’ people, so much so that even politicians these days are trying to sound more down-to-earth by trying (and invariably failing) to come across like they come from somewhere gritty.
According to a recent survey by artificial grass firm Trulawn, some 11 per cent of Londoners have altered their accent to sound less posh.
But while one in 10 people are trying to dumb down to add to their personality, even more are trying to posh up, with 22 per cent admitting faking their accent in a job interview.
These Eliza Doolittles, concerned about being identified with a particular geographical origin or simply in fear of not being understood in ‘polite society’, are taking all-the-rage accentreduction courses to help them soften their speech, change their intonation patterns, alter their pitch and lose their locally acquired idiosyncrasies.
This takes me back to the early days in Dubai (cue nostalgic music) when fresh expats had to adjust their speech and cut out the idiosyncrasies to be understood – especially by people in the service industry.
Polite phrases and variations on directions for taxi drivers were soon dropped in favour of barked orders – not out of disrespect, but just to be understood.
Sadly, it also meant that long-term expats began to lose their vocal quirks, and many of us ended up speaking a hybrid, international version of English. In fact, that international version owed more to the US than us Brits.
Coming back to Blighty, I still use the word ‘apartment’ instead of ‘flat’, ‘elevator’ instead of ‘lift’, and ‘closet’ instead of ‘wardrobe’.
I get some funny looks from the butcher, but then my Received Pronunciation kicks in and I see him looking at me with renewed respect and fear as I order my meat and bid him a high-class ‘cheerio’.