Friday, September 12, 2008


Living in London, you become aware of a wide variety of accents. There's no such thing as a "British accent," the thing is plural, beginning with working class or Cockney, going on to Midlands, Scots, Irish, Australian, New Zealander, West Indian, Nigerian, Indian, and more recently East European.

In the old days, there was something called the "BBC accent," used in all public broadcasts, or the "University accent," based on public schools (in the U.S.A., read "private") topped off by speech patterns prevalent at Oxford or Cambridge. And there were also "county" accents, characteristic of the old landed gentry mainly situated outside London. All of these were related, they constituted the speech that was regarded as belonging as a birthright to the ruling classes--and therefore desirable.

But now the BBC announcers use a variety of accents, including one that developed in the 1980s and usually referred to as "estuary." The latter is Essex-flavored and was adopted by younger upper class speakers as a way of not sounding too posh or upper class. It was felt to be more egalitarian.

My advanced degree is in French, and in the course of getting it I learned not only French but also German, Italian, and Spanish. Because I have "a good ear" I can sound quite close to what native speakers in all these languages speak. And I think people in at least France are glad I don't sound like Jean Seberg in Breathless when I speak French.

A long time ago I set myself to learning English as a foreign language, and now know the differences in vocabulary, spelling, idiom, and pronunciation. (A few examples: a cellphone is a "mobile." The trunk of a car is "the boot." The statement, "It has nothing to do with you," becomes "It's nothing to do with you." American verbs in "-ize" like "realize" become "-ise," "realise." Yet again there are class differences in vocabulary, so that, for example, upper-class "napkin" becomes "serviette" in working-class English; and there are several other words that vary according to social status.) When I began examining accents, I discovered, as I said, that there are several. The BBC was the easiest. Hardest to learn is working class or Cockney, which has an amazing range of vocal effects, fun to reproduce to the extent I can. I haven't spent enough time with county people to manage their accent (again, there are differences according to region), though of course it isn't terribly different from the University accent. I'm getting pretty good at Irish, but Scots I haven't made a lot of progress in, no doubt because I don't yet have any Scots friends.

Linguists regard all languages and all accents as "value-neutral," meaning none is viewed as intrinsically better than others. (As speech, I mean. Literary value can be improved by a decision to expand vocabulary, establish distinctions, and move usage and idioms closer to what's logical and clear.) The "value-neutral" idea makes sense to me, but I realize/realise that it's not the common view. Most people of the upper class regard the working-class accent as unfortunate or cacophonous, and most working-class people regard the upper class accent as pretentious or snobby (which, as noted above, resulted a couple of decades ago in younger upper class members' adoption of the esturary accent, to avoid being despised by the majority.)

Meanwhile, as any British person who has lived in America will tell you, the British accent wins a visitor instant regard over there and often enough, lucrative employment--even when the particular accent in question might be considered in the U.K. as a marker of low economic status. Few Americans can distinguish the differences among British accents. So, how should we interpret the American fascination with the British voice? It must point to a lingering sense of cultural inferiority in the U.S.A., part of the same instinct that led people in 1920s Hollywood to build timber-frame Tudor houses in a landscape and climate entirely different from the one that first produced that building style. And allowed the transplanted Englishwoman Elinor Glyn to become the arbiter of what was done and not done socially in the California film capital.

After the social, technical, and artistic achievements of the 20th century, I see no reason for Americans to feel automatically inferior to Europeans, whatever the situation may have been in earlier centuries. By the same token, there's no reason to regard the British University accent as superior as such. I think it sounds good, but so does working-class speech, just as French or Italian or German sounds good--wonderful sonic creations invented by people who weren't especially trying to invent anything. But here's an interesting fact: When I'm in some shop in Kensington, I notice I get better treatment if I use the University accent. By the same token, if I go the the East Street outdoor market here in Kennington and buy a turnip, I'm well treated if I call the seller "mite" ("mate") and use the working-class voice. Prejudices aren't going away just because they are based on unexamined assumptions. At intellectual gatherings, American voice is best, I think, to avoid the supposition that I'm "putting on airs" if I speak British English. (Which, by the way, points to a conviction, consciously or unconsciously held, that the British accent is superior to the American, a superiority I could be seen as aspiring to, but without the "right" to it. Meanwhile, no French person would feel there was anything out of place if I managed "l'accent de Paris" with close accuracy.) Anyway, once it's established you're not an ignoramus or fundamentalist or Bush-supporter, British writers and thinkers are quite welcoming to Americans, so why not provide the vocal marker for your nationality? Finally, during the forty-odd years I've been coming to London, British speech has moved a lot closer to American than it used to be, probably because of the influence of American film, television, and pop music.

I think too much is made of accents, they're seen (or heard) as much more important than they really are. Here, let me back up a bit. I grew up in the State of Georgia and heard two forms of Southern American English throughout my childhood: the English spoken by whites and that spoken by African Americans. I could still manage either today with perfect ease, though I would certainly avoid speaking Black English for fear that people would assume I was making fun. (Too bad, because Black English has many interesting tonal resources and is fascinating to hear, once you get past the idea that it is substandard.) But around age six or seven, my father, thinking maybe I might one day get a degree in law, engaged a speech tutor for me, a woman from Ohio, I think it was. So she instilled in me something like a Midwestern American accent, and it may well be that the process of acquiring it was the beginning of the development of a special talent at hearing and producing different vocal sounds.

Those lessons came in handy when at the age of twenty-two I came to live in New York and enrolled at Columbia. There were one or two other Southerners in the program, and I noticed they were quickly cut short when they spoke in class--not because what they were saying was stupid, but because their voices gave the impression they were stupid. Now that we've had several Presidents with Southern accents there's less stigma than formerly about the Southern voice, in fact, it seems to be something of a plus. Although: wasn't it in Alabama, during the primaries, that Hilary Clinton spoke with a Southern accent and came in for criticism? Ah, but she wasn't Southern by birth and was therefore dissed as being inauthentic, no matter if living all those years in Arkansas must have made Southern speech patterns perfectly accessible to her. Still, how is varying your speech different from doffing your suit jacket and walking among steel workers with a blue-collar shirt on your back? People like to see themselves reflected in those they meet, to hear from others what they themselves speak. Whose fault is that? If you're running for office, a gift for different accents might be useful.

I still think too much emphasis and concern attach to accents, but no doubt that's like saying people worry too much about clothes. Self-presentation to outsiders is one of the most powerful motivators in experience, and that's not going to change just because a little reflection shows that there's no rational basis for fears that we're unworthy if wearing the "wrong" kind of outfit and speaking in a way different from those around us.


Karen said...

Regarding your remarks on assumptions non-Southerners make about those with Southern accents - I'm reminded of Lenny Bruce's claim that "If Albert Einstein tawked lakh thayat, thar wouldn't be no bomb."

I have long mulled over the intriguing similarities between Cockney and Platt-Deutsch, both of which are frowned upon as the absolute nadir of lower-class speech by speakers of "educated" English and German. Perversely, both Cockney and Platt-Deutsch have come to be associated with intrinsic street-smarts, broad and bawdy humor, and razor-sharp mother-wit. My father, who speaks perfect Hoch-Deutsch when he feels like it, is given to lapsing into heavy Platt-Deutsch whenever he wants to elicit a shriek of "Ach, sei doch nicht so ordinaire!" from my mother - and, naturally, we kids eagerly aped him on all occasions.

Anonymous said...

I'm so sorry to have lost touch, but your earlier happy comments about my ""epyllion" were great, though presses didn't take it, but whatever...I'm more or less happy being what I will remain, an unknown, and now that I've been denied tenure by Wesleyan, regardless the two scholarly books, I'm realizing that there is more to life than all this.

And that the academy really does does does hate gay men, esp. or only esp. white ones....I don't mean that as a racist statement, i am happy for all the folks who do succeed, ---just wasn't my lot.

There weren't many options, either unemployment or what?, but turns out to have been just fine, though not financially fortuitous at all. Poor as a door mouse seems to suit for now, god bless that at the moment, I do hope one day soon to be at least solvent.. Nonetheless, here in kingston, I have time to prepare and teach and maybe some time to write. But hell, writing seems a deep luxury. Anyhow, wanted to say hi, not sure where you are now, but many happy cheers and blessings.

john emil vincent

Alfred Corn said...

Thanks for reminding me, J.V. It must be four years now. Sounds as though you've landed on your feet at least. I did send a message to the e-mail address in your comment, but it was returned. Spam filter, I guess.

Ray said...

How rash to attempt to cover British accents in a few paragraphs! Maybe the essential thing to grasp is that there is both a regional and a class element – though arguably class is only part of a broader cultural dimension that touches on age, gender and racial group.

I get the impression only a few British accents enter American consciousness – including a working class London accent that passes for cockney. So a film like Kes had to be re-dubbed, I believe, as even the toned-down Barnsley (South Yorkshire) accent was too strong to be understood. I wonder what American accents don’t get heard over here? Certainly the south London working class accent that you presumably hear in Kennington is only one of innumerable British working class accents. What is odd is how some are fashionable and others not, and how this changes. For instance, I have the impression that the distinctive Liverpool accent is not so in favour now as in earlier decades, while the West Midlands accents (Birmingham, Black Country etc) have never been fashionable.

Of course, there are different Scottish and Irish accents too. But do Scottish accents have the same class dimension? Maybe the Edinburgh accent is considered classless while the Glasgow accent is working class. That’s a view from England, at least, maybe based on the fact that the former is more easily understood. [And I’m told that in Northern Ireland you distinguish working class Protestants from working class Catholics (you have to be one or the other even if you’re Jewish) according to whether “h” is pronounced “aich” or “haich”. Is this true?]

I agree you can take it too seriously. But it’s a fascinating topic nevertheless.

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