The thing about accents

Tuesday 27th September   

The thing about accents is that besides being an instant identifier of your origin, they can also be an albatross around your neck.  When I was growing up I was totally unaware of accents, either regional or national.  All the girls at my school spoke with the same slightly stilted upper middle class accent that was heard on the radio.  It was totally unconscious; we all spoke like that because that was how our parents spoke.  It was only with the advent of television that I even realised that in England, let alone Britain, there was a wide variety of accents; although precious few were acceptable on the BBC of the time.  It was on Coronation Street, which Grandma simply loved, with its’ racy story lines and distinctive characters like Elsie Tanner and Ena Sharples, that I first really woke up to the fact that the way people spoke reflected the part of the country they came from.  And on the news they would sometimes interview people from Liverpool or Norwich, and they sounded distinctly different.  By inference, did that mean that my accent must mark me down as a Londoner.  Well, no, because I actually spoke a sort of standard English that reflected a class rather than a distinct area; I later discovered that Londoners spoke ‘cockney’.

When I left the safety of school, where we all talked more or less the same, and started working I became aware of my own accent straightaway, and almost unconsciously started to soften it, to speak with a little less plum in my voice, less high pitched, softer, and more like the other women there.  I say that this was unconscious, because I think that it was almost a natural thing to do; when you are in a certain group of people, you want to be a part of them, to be accepted, and so almost automatically you start to speak a bit more like them, or at least I always have.  I don’t change my accent completely but I do modify it a bit, which makes it all the more surprising when one comes across people who are living and working in London, and yet have never even begun to lose their accents.  Surely they must encounter difficulties in being understood all over the place, especially the heavy Glasgwegian, or the almost sarky-sounding Brummie ones.

I was in my bank a few years back, before the introduction of cash points, queuing up to cash a cheque, which was the only way you could get money in those days (heaven knows how we all coped, but somehow the system worked).  There was a young woman in her early twenties behind the counter who, from her accent was from New Zealand, definitely Antipodean at any rate.  I passed my cheque through the slot in the glass, “How’d yer like yer kish, Mrs Litamah?” she asked.  I was miles away, not really concentrating, and not understanding her at all said “Pardon?”  “I said ‘How’d yer like yer kish, Mrs Litamah?”  “Actually the word is cash, and my name is Mrs Latimer.”  I attempted to correct her. “That’s what I said ‘How’d yer like yer kish, Mrs Litamah.”  This was the third time and I was getting peeved by now. “Look, if I can say cash and kish, and Latimer as well as Litamah, then surely you can pronounce them correctly too.” “I cant hilp my accint, can I?” she half pleaded. “Oh, I’m sure you could, if you really tried.”  I replied.

Nasty?  Probably, but how else was the poor girl going to learn to make herself understood.