Af­ter sev­eral em­bar­rass­ing “I’m sorry, I don’t un­der­stand,” en­coun­ters, Kate Birch needs a les­son in re­gional Bri­tish ac­cents

Friday - - COLUMN -

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’.

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