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.
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.
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’
dreich – best 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.