More accents, please

January 25, 2009 at 8:23 pm | Posted in Media | 1 Comment

When I was a bairn, my mother worried that I sounded a bit ‘common’. Granted, worrying is mum’s default function, but it’s probably true that my accent & dialect was stronger than either of my parents. I pronounced ‘water’ so that it rhymed with ‘batter’, said ‘reight’ instead of ‘right’ and ‘thery’ instead of ‘very’. I’d say ‘ey up’, ‘gi oer’ and (occasionally) ‘blummin’ ummer’. Because she wanted her son to have the best start in life, and didn’t see how that could be achieved by having an accent like the Arctic Monkeys (if only she’d known), she bundled me off to elocution lessons until I learned how to speak properly.

About a decade later and I’m traipsing around Cambridge, discovering that whilst those lessons had satisfied mum that I wasn’t ‘too northern’, the southerners I met confirmed that there was still no mistaking my accent. “Shouldn’t you be studying at the University of Bradford?” I was once asked by some dismissive, drunken cretin. But what he and others like him heard when I spoke was vastly different to what other people heard; when I came home during the holidays, the people I worked with and customers I served all thought I was ‘dead posh’.

Now that English is such a global language that there are infinite ways of speaking or using it, you’d think people wouldn’t be quite so hung up on the peculiarities of regional dialects. I mean, you wouldn’t mock a Chinese, Spanish or Polish person for the way they speak our language, so why are Geordies, Brummies and Scousers all considered fair game? Aren’t they all equaly valid and diverse interpretations of the same basic values? Don’t they all reveal a rich tradition and culture?

Certainly not, according to Beryl Bainbridge, whose fabulous belch of snobbery centers around the claim that the English spoken in her native Liverpool is ‘the most hideous accent of all’. Beryl insists that Scousers sounded better in the old days, despairs at their ‘whingeing tones & dreadful vowels’ and ventures that it makes them sound ‘uneducated’. She concludes that we need to return to the golden age of TV when old white men with dulcet tones spoke ‘proper’ English.

Personally, I can’t think of anything more dull. For a start, I’d bet good money that the people who presented programming in the so-called ‘golden age’ of television spoke nothing like the rest of the population, but had the privilege of speaking to the nation because their accents mirrored those of the ruling class, and therefore seemed authoritative. I think it’s also true that by having one homogenous accent on TV, you risk rendering anything which doesn’t conform to that as strange, alien and inferior. If Received Pronounciation is glorified as connoting wisdom, class and intelligence, then any other accent or dialect is going to be seen as inferior. So all Bainbridge is actually proposing is a way of perpetuating the regional snobbery she practices herself.

No, what we really need are more regional voices, more dialects, more accents. Our news programming in particular needs opening up to reflect the nation’s diversity, and put an end to the unintended impression that only by speaking in a certain way are you intelligent, authoritative or trustworthy. That, as a scouser might say, would be sound as a pound…

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  1. “About a decade later and I’m traipsing around Cambridge, discovering that whilst those lessons had satisfied mum that I wasn’t ‘too northern’, the southerners I met confirmed that there was still no mistaking my accent. “Shouldn’t you be studying at the University of Bradford?” I was once asked by some dismissive, drunken cretin. But what he and others like him heard when I spoke was vastly different to what other people heard; when I came home during the holidays, the people I worked with and customers I served all thought I was ‘dead posh’.”

    Yep, this happened to me at Oxford.


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