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The importance of an accent

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Essay | 11 minute read
How we talk is about more than just about the sounds we make: it reveals who we are and where we are from

‘Doest tha wanna fate? Doest tha?’

So began the first day at my new primary school, aged nine.

‘Ah wun fate ’im,’ another boy said. ‘E’s cock o t’school!’

‘Aye,’ the first boy gave me a shove. ‘An dunt tha forget it, if tha dunt want to gerra brayin [a beating].’

Hemsworth, in the West Riding of Yorkshire, is only a little over 50 miles from Kingston upon Hull – simply ‘Hull’ to most people – in the old East Riding. Same region; same county. But a different country, even century, for me back then.

That first day was like being cast adrift from everything I’d ever known, including language. For a start, there were two. There was the language of the teachers in the classroom – recognisable, intelligible, understandable even through the filter of a strange accent. And then there was the language of the playground – a strange almost Shakespearean way of speaking, all ‘Thee’ and ‘Thou’ and with its own peculiar vocabulary.

‘Wan’ sum spice?’ Spice (or, as I heard it, space) were sweets, apparently. I learned that much from the fact that a paper bag filled with all manner of candy confections was being proffered by a friendly fellow pupil.

‘Whoa! Tha canna ’ave spice until tha’s finished tha snap, tha knaws. I’ll tell us mam!’ A bigger boy – the older brother of my friend with the sweets as I discovered later – appeared, reminding his younger sibling that sweets may only be consumed after lunch (or dinner – ‘snap’) had first been eaten.

‘Ist tha leckin?’ That was harder. Leckin. Laiking. Larking. Playing. I was being invited to join a game of football on the field. I was learning.

‘Wheeus tha from, then?’

‘Hull,’ I replied.

‘Wheeas that?’

‘It’s . . .’

. . . About an hour’s drive away. Not that far, really. No distance, even then. You could commute if you wanted. Why hadn’t my father decided to do just that? Why had we had to move house? And why here?

Hemsworth was as different to Hull as it could possibly be. It was smaller, for a start, little more (at the time, in the late seventies) than a village – a pit village, at that. Most of the other kids’ dads worked ‘darn’t t’pit’. The fact that my dad didn’t earn his living ‘diggin’ coil’ marked me out immediately as an ‘off-cum’d un’ – different, strange, exotic even and not least because of the way I spoke.

Not that I had a Hull accent. My mum thought that was horrible, and we (my sister and I) were threatened, if we spoke it at home, with a visit to our rather frightening next-door-neighbour – a lady with a brass plaque by her front door listing her qualifications as an elocution teacher.

I’ve always quite liked the Hull accent. There’s a bleached out, flattened version now that everyone makes fun of: ‘sner’ (snow); ‘turtle’ (total); ‘rerd werks’ (road works). Many regional accents are retreating in the face of the relentless vocal onslaught of ‘telly south’ and ‘telly north’ and are starting to sound faintly ridiculous. But there’s another, richer version of ‘Hull’ almost verging on Geordie in some of its inflections. Listen to Norma Waterson (Hull folk royalty) speak and you’ll hear ‘Hull’ as it used to be spoken. Or, at least, as I remember it being spoken.

But in ‘propuh Yarkshur’ it was different. And the West Riding accent was a sink-or-swim experience for a nine-year-old from Hull. Forty years on and I’m still not sure how well I coped. But what I did learn – quickly, and sometimes painfully – was a different way of speaking.

 

Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

Barnaby Lennon, former Head of Harrow School, hit the headlines recently with his claim that posh politicians often ‘lapse into estuary English’ or try to ‘neutralise’ their voices in order to increase voter appeal. He may be right. But how we talk is about more than just about the sounds we make. And the savvy voter should soon see through such sly attempts at subterfuge.

Accent is important. It reveals who (or where) we are and never more so than in literature. Dialect locates a novel geographically: Hardy’s Wessex; Dickens’ London; the Brontës’ Yorkshire. And how a character speaks can say much more about them than the words the author uses to describe them. In Lady Chatterley’s Lover, gamekeeper Mellors is accused (mistakenly) of speaking ‘Yorkshire’. He doesn’t. But he certainly does speak in the vernacular. And that’s deliberate. He is the one in the novel in touch with the earth, with instinct, with primitive desire. Lawrence represents that vocally as strongly as anything he writes descriptively. The way Mellors speaks locates him ideologically as well as spiritually. But Mellors may be something of a literary exception.

In books, a local accent is more likely to be a shortcut to a character’s lack of intelligence or formal education. The cantankerous (and sometimes barely intelligible) servant of Wuthering Heights is vividly portrayed through dialogue. Though loyal, Joseph is also fickle; he is a simple man, fond of literal, biblical truths; a fanatic, in fact. It’s a convincing portrait. But Emily Brontë’s portrayal also highlights some of the pitfalls of rendering dialect in print.

Put simply, it stands accused of being a barrier to intelligibility. In her 1850 edition of the novel (published after Emily’s death) Charlotte Brontë – while defending her sister’s descriptions of character and place – nevertheless acknowledges the difficulty its ‘alien and unfamiliar’ language posed for readers and felt it necessary to tone down some of the more extreme examples. Though not, perhaps, enough for some!

Comedy has often been a safer bet. Writers from Chaucer to Shakespeare have routinely used non-standard English to show a character we need to take less-than-seriously. Dickens, too, was a master at using regional accents and idiolects for literary effect. The drunken old nurse in Martin Chuzzlewitt (‘Gamp is my name and Gamp my nater’) with her habit of adding errant ‘gs’ to the end of words and her ‘imaginary friend’, Mrs Harris; Mr Bumble’s many pompous pronouncements; Squeers’ idiosyncratic ‘Yorkshire’ spelling (‘W-i-n, win, d-e-r, der, winder, a casement’). There are examples galore.

But even Dickens was accused of being ‘selective and at times, casual’ in his approach to anything other than the London lingo. Despite this authors still frequently use non-standard English as a handy (though perhaps lazy) way to signify a comic character. But in inexpert hands (and there are many!) the joke is often on the author. Rendered badly, local dialogue can soon become the literary equivalent of Dick van Dyke’s cockney cacophony in Mary Poppins. The barrier to intelligibility here is built on unintentional hilarity.

As a result most editors advise a ‘less is more’ approach to dialect. But it’s an approach I resisted in my novel, The Glorious Dead. How the men speak (and, in the case of the main protagonist, even the language he chooses) is a vital part of who they are. As they search for bodies and dig graves, their speech shows them coping not just with the grim reality of the battlefield clearances but also the historic horrors of the trenches.

They’re a mixed bunch. As well as Yorkshireman Jack there’s a Scot, a Londoner, even an Aussie (thanks to having had an English mother). Local army recruitment effectively ended in 1916 with the introduction of conscription. By the end of the war men from all corners of the country could end up fighting together. A Nottinghamshire farmer might be posted to the Durham Light Infantry; a Yorkshire miner might end up tunnelling alongside men who dug the London underground. Men on the same side had to learn, and learn quickly, how to understand each other. Only officers spoke – or affected to speak – with the same accent.

Men at the front also learned – and shared – the specific vocabulary of war: abbreviations and acronyms that were the (often flippant) code by which otherwise unspeakable horrors could be shared. There were the words borrowed from other tongues, too – ‘Blighty’ from the Hindu ‘bilayati’ meaning ‘foreign country’; ‘kūlī’ from the same source becoming ‘Coolie’ for a member of the Chinese Labour Corps.

This was a private language; one for the initiates. No one at home after the war would have understood or cared to learn. It is, perhaps, a cliché that so many survivors of the Great War remained steadfastly silent on the subject of their suffering. But back home, the nation they returned to was sick of hearing about ‘war’. No one, in the immediate aftermath, actually wanted to listen.

Only decades later did a different generation start to take an interest in what the remaining survivors had to say. And by then the language of the trenches – minnie-woofer; landowner; rest camp; base rat – required translating.


In Shaw’s Pygmalion, accent is everything. Henry Higgins only has to hear Eliza Doolittle to know not only who she is but where she’s from, down to the very street where she lives. But although Eliza can be taught to talk like a duchess, she remains forever a flower girl. As Higgins says of himself (somewhat ironically) in Act III, ‘some habits lie too deep to be changed.’

Habits of speech lie too deep to be masked by any artificial changes we make to how we sound. (If you’ve tried the British and Irish dialect quiz that was recently published by the New York Times, you might have been surprised by how accurately it mapped the language of your childhood.) The Eton-educated George Osborne might affect the mockney accent of the everyman but what he says will still reveal what lies beneath. Margaret Thatcher famously received vocal coaching to lower the pitch of her speaking voice. It didn’t alter what she said. As Professor Higgins says, ‘you have to consider not only how a girl pronounces, but what she pronounces.’

Photo by Jack B on Unsplash

Sometimes, though, even the words you choose and your pronunciation of them pales into insignificance compared to the language you speak. That summer – after my linguistic baptism of fire in West Yorkshire – we went on holiday to North Wales. It was the height of anti-English feeling: holiday cottages were being torched by Welsh nationalists. One lunchtime my dad went into a village pub to see if they allowed children. No one spoke. Or rather, they did. In Welsh. With their backs turned to him. We drove on.

Language can be a powerful political statement. In the post-war Flanders of The Glorious Dead, to speak Flemish is to identify with an independence movement, one fuelled by the bitterness of wartime injustice. Only those who spoke French were allowed to hold a commission in the Belgian army. During the war the Germans tried exploiting such divisions, offering Flemings post-war independence from the hated, French-speaking Walloons in return for laying down their arms.

That was a step too far for most patriotic Belgians. But as an Englishman (and Yorkshireman) abroad, Jack Patterson must contend with not one, but two foreign tongues. French is freighted with social and political baggage for the returning inhabitants of Ypres. And these are the people Jack hopes to befriend as part of his efforts to remain abroad and make a future for himself far away from Yorkshire. To fit in, he must learn the language. And what he struggles to say is less important in this instance than the tongue in which he says it. In any case his accent is, as one local tells him, ‘filthy’.

No wonder words sometimes fail him. But then, words fail us all, especially when we try to pretend to be something we’re not. Ultimately, how we speak says something about who we are. Without the right voice – whether as politicians or as characters in fiction – we are never going to be convincing. We’re pretending. We might as well say nothing.

The unfortunate young man at the Veneering’s dinner in Bleak House manages just one word – Esker – in his failed attempt to speak French. It is a disaster; he is never seen again. Accent is more than just a way of speaking. If we don’t stay true to our own voice we put at risk our own right to a hearing. ‘Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must remain silent,’ as Wittgenstein once enigmatically put it. Or as they (still) say up in Yorkshire: ‘See all, hear all, say nowt.’