A don’t speak like a Weegie.

A friend admitted, shortly after meeting me, that my accent was a ‘surprise’ to him – not what he’d ‘expected’ from what he knew of me.

I laughed at this. Not only because I was aware that whilst speaking to him my subconscious had tweaked my ‘Register'( so I was really speaking a less strongly accented version of my accent) but because our mutual friend – the person through whom we knew of one another – has always poked fun at my accent, calling me Weegie (a sometimes not so respectful diminutive for ‘Glaswegian’).
We are friends. So this baiting is ‘allowed’. On the basis that I give as good as I get. And also because this is what we Scots call ‘banter’. In fact it’s our default approach to friendship. You’re not relaxed with someone if you can’t ‘take the piss’; ‘rip’ one another; take and give a ‘good slagging’.

But, truthfully, accent is thorny. Accent is really not neutral. Accent brings bin bags full of social and cultural assumptions: of class; of region; of socio-economic status; of ethnicity and of religion. Accent is taken as a signifier – of power and wealth and intelligence (or their absence).

And unlike gender and race and religion and disability there are none of the statutory prohibitions or moral, social or cultural controls inhibiting our prejudices.

A strong ‘regional’ or ethnic accent may inhibit access to at least some of ‘the professions’; prevent you from reaching the upper eschelons of the professions or limit the career doors that open to you. It may be the reason you didn’t get that flat you wanted to rent or that promotion. Though of course, this can cut both ways. I can think of a few situations where I wouldn’t want  to speak what used to be called ‘BBC English’ or ‘received pronunciation’ (RP) – doing a Social Work visit in an area of poverty and deprivation, for instance. 

To many (arguably middle class, educated, powerful) folk, my accent identifies me as ‘working class’. It may also lead them to conclude that I left the education system at 16 yrs old; that I am in low-waged employment; and that I am a West of Scotland protestant. But to the working class folk I was once properly part of, sometimes my accent distinguishes me as middle class and educated.

It wasn’t until I studied English Language during my first degree that I realised – in common with the vast majority – I had several speech ‘registers’ and that I would slip between them depending on my audience. At least two-thirds on my undergraduate course were the children of the middle classes – their birth accents were shaped by private schools and money. But two or three admitted that they adopted street and slang when they wanted to feel ‘cool’… Course Director and departmental head, Professor Samuels was just fascinated by language. Our lazy glottal stops, the out of place plosives and fricatives that many of our teachers had tried to eradicate, were signposts on a roadmap of accent and dialect to him. He opened our eyes to the beauty of our ability to slip between the heavily accented and often dialect-laden language we used with those who shared family or village or school and the smoother, less relaxed, more ‘formal’ language we might use, for example, with our University teachers. I remember that he was showing off speak to me and I’ll tell you where you come from and pin-pointed my Shotts origins right away. How much I resented this at the time.

At Uni I tended to keep my mouth shut. If I spoke more than twice during tutorials in 1st and 2nd year that would be generous.This was the self-conscious ‘ashamed and embarrassed’ phase. This phase would probably have happened anyway. If not about the way I spoke, it would’ve been about the size of my nose or my fat thighs or something.

Then I went through an angry phase.
It’s communication, stupid! Could you understand me? Yes. So shut the f* up!

All the time my Mother noticed the subtle language changes and ‘approved’. Which annoyed me even more for my brother and I had laughed at the way in which we were exhorted by our Mother and by school teachers to ‘speak properly’. We had laughed but acknowledge the damage it sometimes did us – bullied by peers if we adopted ‘proper English’  and thumped by Mother if we lapsed.

It is about our ability to communicate. But the way we speak communicates much more about us than the meaning of the words we say.

I was out on Friday night with two friends. Maisie’s is a comfortably rough wee local. I know most of the folk who drink in it and they know me – usually as ‘Megan’s Mum’ or ‘Lewis’ Mum’. I was talking to Meg – she was working behind the bar – when one guy interjected like he was accusing me: Wer dae ewe cum fae? Ewir no fae roon here.

Meg says I gave him a look that would’ve frozen his gonads before saying: Whit? Whit ewe talkin’ aboot? Whit the fuk his it tae dae wi’ ewe anywi? He shuffled off. She laughed. And we resumed our softer speech, fully-present vowels and consonant-richer language just different from the language he and I had used on one another.

Perhaps it’s the case that there’s a time and place for everything.

I’m aware that my own children fully enunciate many words whose vowels and consonants would run and blend in the language I grew up speaking. Though I’m also aware that they too change depending on their audience. Their language being part-cost of the membership of that particular friendship group – or simply related to their age.

As for my Mum and Dad – over the years their own language has slipped back into the sturdy nursery of their childhood. Stolidly Lanarkshire in pronunciation. They speak West Central Scottish and reveal their age in their continued use of dialect words and phrases.

Some of my favourites:

Duntit – meaning bumped into and bashed
thole – meaning ‘suffer stoically’ or ‘put up with’ or ‘endure’
‘away fur a wee daunder’ – meaning to go for a largely aimless wander somewhere
craitur – probably ‘creature’ but it’s more than that – it can refer to appearance as in ‘pair craitur’ (poor creature) and also to nature or personality (pejorative).
stoorie – meaning ‘dusty’ but so much more satisfying an adjective
reekin’ – meaning smells not good
sheuch meaning the street gutter
ingon  sounds like ingot – but means ‘onion’
dreichbest of all, this word refers to a grey damp washed-out drab day…

(I’ll attach a video of the words being spoken later?)

So, does it matter? How we speak? If we are understood? Or does the way we speak truly reveal us to our audience? Exposing us to prejudice and assumption – the most innocuous of which still revealing so much about the way in which our society works.

17 thoughts on “A don’t speak like a Weegie.

  1. You have told us so much and asked so many questions that no amount of simple comment can, of course, be adequate. Given that I'm away from home at the moment a post may be too ambitious but I'll try. It won't flow as easily as yours; it won't be as readable; it won't be as erudite; and it's unlikely to contain much in the way of regional accents but I'll try. In the meantime what I will say is that in my view you are correct in that at one time accent did place one in a particular educational and social bracket but I think less so now that the BBC has as many very well-educated people with strong regional accents appearing. I think, too, that perceptions vary with both social and geographical upbringing. The thing is to have the confidence to speak as you wish to speak and the courage to live with the consequences.

  2. You silver-tongued flatterer! 😉
    You're right – the situation is far more fluid now and regional accents are more acceptable than they once were.
    The 'danger' of a post like this, Graham, is that I generalise or rely on anecdotal 'evidence' – and I have done here…
    I understand 'accent' thus: We humans are hard-wired to 'categorise' as a short-hand method of making sense of the world we live in – and accent is just another aid to that short-hand 'understanding' of other people. As with all 'short-hand' methods it doesn't quite account for the exceptions to the rules we categorise by.
    I'm way more comfortable with my stronger accent now. The beauty of age!
    Have a lovely time with your brother and sister-in-law and family! x

  3. Yvonne I never flatter people. Flattery corrupteth both the giver and the receiver. If I pay a compliment I mean it. Oh god that sounds so pompous. It's true though. I even have difficulty saying a hairdo is good if I don't think it is. You have, however, written the comment I would have written if I had thought of it. Will I write my post now? I'll still try.

  4. Burke has got to be the best source of quotes! One other of his (probably my favourite) is 'the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing'.
    Pity he was a Conservative… 😉
    I'm looking forward to your post. x

  5. I never really thought of EB as a Conservative although 'conservative' yes. As a Whig, however, I seem to recall that his faction of the Whigs did support Protestantism and wasn't too much in favour of the Stuarts. Could that be colouring your view? He was, after all, not a Tory: the definite opposition of all Whigs.

  6. I think I picked up from my political philosophy tutor that Burke was viewed as 'the father of modern conservatism' (I'll blame him anyway). He's a mixed bag really. With the Whigs castigating him for speaking like a Tory and vice versa. Especially in his 'Reflections'when he opposed the French Revolution. But he does say some very interesting things.

  7. He certainly opposed the French Revolution. I do remember that. Actually my comparative politics subsid is so long ago that I'm surprised I even recall that.

  8. Often times north of the ohio river, my accent is all anybody needs to know about me…uneducated, poor, and probably a racist. Occasionally it will be given back to you in an exaggerated way…like the “Southern” characters on TV and in movies.

    I don't care…depending on my level of intoxication, I either laugh in their face or explain to them that I speak English in the same way that William Faulkner did. At which point…I have to explain who William Faulkner is and the whole thing just kinda peters out….:)

    The only part that really grates on the nerves is this…most of these people are not of natural English speakers. Their families are from Poland or Italy, Bulgaria…Russia, Scandinavia or Germany. Lots and lots and lots of Germans. The English they have come to speak is a tool for communication but too bloodless to be called a language. They have given us the American accent…the one that sounds like a duck in a trash compactor. You guyzzz know the one.

    Use the word “reckon” around these people and they fall on the floor laughing like they just caught you in a compromising position with yer sister. We use double negatives…we say weren't and were for was not and was (especially weren't)…and on. All acceptable among actual English speakers at one time, in one place or another.

    I think I've finally gotten across to my father-in-law (from the midwest) that the Boy's accent is off limits. When my son says bed…it's bay-ed and it's the most beautiful sound I've ever heard. I don't think they'll be any more chuckles about it from the corn gallery.

    Mine don't switch…I didn't change for Yale and I'm sure as hell not gonna change for some dullards in a corn field. 🙂

  9. Ah. e.f. You summed it up way better than I could. And I'm jealous of yer consistency. I've buckled my whole life. Brought up to 'speak proper' – it's now so that doffing my linguistic cap is pavlov's dug stuff for me.
    Battered out of me by parents and teachers and decades of English 'English speakers' on telly.
    We use (increasingly) 'reckon' too. But that's seen as a 'creeping Americanism'.
    I recognise that defensive love of accent.
    Though your Southern accent sounds soft, gentle, lulling to my ears. Full of 'blood' (a beautiful way of describing language- thanks). All that living and talking that went to the making of it.
    As earthy as my own but not so hard on the ear. Glaswegian is like a Glasgow Kiss. A guttural glottal-stop-filled hammer to the ears.
    Me? I'm a less posh Sheena Easton – before her 'shagging Prince' phase. And oh how we Lanarkshire folk cringed when we heard her speaking on the telly.

  10. Lucky you to be taught by Samuels (on my reading list! Mind you, I was taught by Linda Mugglestone, who is a pretty big name herself in a younger generation).

    Sometimes sociolinguists make everything sound terribly rosy, don't they – people code-switching deftly so they can give the right messages to the right people – whereas all of us, RP, regional, immigrant, whatever, end up spending at least some of the time feeling that people judge us unfairly by our speech, that it sends out a message that while true on one level (yes, I really am (lower) middle-class English; yes, you are really are from Glasgow) is for others often a way of not bothering to pay attention to anything else about us. But I don't think it helps to feel that either the way we basically sound or the ways we can switch or adapt are causes for shame. They're just the tools that we were given. Sometimes we wish for different ones, and sometimes we're grateful for what we have.

    Sorry, a bit rambly there… really liked the post.

  11. I've just ordered Mugglestone's 'Talking Proper'! Lucky you to be young enough to be taught by her 😉
    Prof Samuels was my tutor from 1985-87. Very 'old style'. There was no 'informality' in tutorials. But he was very gentle I remember. Benign. And tweedy and grey with a little grey moustache. His room smelled of books and leather and wood – and like all of those 'houses' in that Terrace, a bit dusty and old. His own speech sounded very very 'proper' RP… He was approaching retirement – and was beginning to wind down his teaching commitments. Latterly I was taught by Jeremy Farrish.
    You're right. It took me a long time not to feel that my accent marked me out as 'inferior' – or to feel some strange shame about how I sound. But that's followed by anger – that you can be judged and dismissed for something as beyond your own control as your birth-accent.
    I've learned to be grateful for what I have. To love the richness of the language I've been brought up with. Still doesn't stop that bloomin' annoying innate register change!!
    Thanks for the comment – you weren't rambly at all and I'm glad you liked the post.

  12. I'm a believer in anecdotal evidence. It's a true recital of experience – before some social scientist gets hold of it and twists it into back up for a pet theory.

    My accent and use of language varies according to my company, I know; just part of communication: but what intrigued me in France was that I was told over and over that I had not a British accent, but a Scots one and that from people who had no idea of my background, so the roots don't die!

    e.f. Bartlam's 'duck in a trash compactor' made me hoot. The first leg of my return from Spain with mother was the train to Barcelona. Opposite us was a woman with two small children whose electronic childminder played over and over for two hours children singing nursery rhymes in English with an American accent….the duck in the trash compactor has it exactly and how I kept from hurling the thing to the floor I do not know.

  13. Ha! Yes – anecdote is a window to the truth. But I've dealt with so bloomin much of it this week (from 'witnesses' and claimants – argh!) that I'm thinking it's a pretty opaque filtered window… 😀

    When we finally meet up in Spain I'll be testing you on that Scottish accent, Helen.

    And I remember those toys. Another reason to be glad that my kids are beyond that age!


  14. I really enjoyed this post. My Northern Irish accent is very much a part of who I am even though lots of people take the piss, specifically my daughter can reproduce it very well. I was in Northern Ireland last week and love the way all the old dialect words come back to me when I talk to my dad. I certainly recognise some from your list: craitur, dander and sheuch as they are used in NI as well. I love the word 'skitter', used to describe a badly behaved child or young person.
    Thinking about all this I was reminded of some lines from a poem by Seamus Heaney who died yesterday. He described so well how he changed the way he spoke when he talked to his parents how he would 'Naw and Aye and decently relapse into the wrong grammar/which kept us allied and at bay'. (That's from Clearances and might be misquoted as it's from memory.) I do that too – my accent becomes so much stronger when I speak to my dad to kind of narrow the gap a bit.
    Also I was wondering if you know the poem by Glasgow poet Tom Leonard about the Six O'Clock News read in a Glasgow accent. I love it – it was n the GCSE syllabus for a while. It really challenges accent prejudice.

  15. Thanks Doris.
    Ahhhh Heaney. A worshipful poet. If I believed in God or gods then I think Seamus Heaney would be He or at least one of the deity (there's a couple of others I think worthy of worship so maybe it would need to be 'gods'!)… I heard of his death with a piercing sense of loss – the world is poorer without his poetic gift. How perfect a description of how we 'narrow the gap' by tweaking our accent.
    And thanks for reminding me of Leonard's poem. I remember reading it years ago – and have just re-read it:
    is ma trooth.
    yooz doant no
    thi trooth
    yirsellz cawz
    yi canny talk
    right. '

    How powerfully this strikes.
    I remember a few years back – I was in the Agent's room of a local Sheriff Court waiting for my cases to call and listened to a group of local Solicitors shredding a female politician. Her crime? That she sounded 'stupid' because she spoke with such a strong Ayrshire accent…
    I wasn't sure at the time how much of my anger was about the misogyny and how much about the accent-prejudice and snobbery.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s