A cute accent

My seven year old son is currently spending every waking minute (including many which ought, by rights, to be sleeping minutes) chain-reading the Harry Potter series. I made the mistake, when I was waiting for my conservatively-booked train home from London (at some point I have turned into my mother and need a clear hour before any departure to allow for every eventuality) of taking a photo of platform 9 and 3/4 at King’s Cross and texting it home so that daddy had an extra layer of hysteria to deal with at bedtime.

It was a mistake because it has now blurred even further the lines between fact and fiction in my son’s head; as I remember pleading with my own mum to send me to Malory Towers (just as well she didn’t; I would never have been hearty enough for that lot) so now he remains unconvinced that Hogwarts really is just pretend.

It’s ironic, really, because London and its doings are what I spend much of my own time reading about, and it’s taken on an other-wordliness which actually going there does little to dispel. I probably shouldn’t admit it, but London increasingly freaks me out. It’s too big, too busy, there are too many shops and bars and people. It’s exhilarating , but it also feels slightly unreal, and I have to remind myself that, actually, this is the real world for most of the people who form opinions and make decisions in this country.

On the train coming down, I read another of the many articles which highlight the widening North-South divide in Britain. Doubtless this is something which a chippy northerner would say, but it feels as though alongside the gap is an increasing weight given to all things southern; a corresponding disregard for all else.

In a conversation with someone in London, I happened to mention that I live in the North East. The woman I spoke to did a kind of double take, then, when I confirmed that yes, actually, I’m also from the North East, pretty much congratulated me on not sounding as though I am. It surprised me slightly at the time, but since then I’ve been thinking more and more about it, and wondering why it left me uncomfortable and rather annoyed.

Regional accents, and their associations, are a very British preoccupation. My own accent is what I tend to think of as posh Geordie: generically Northern, RP-lite, with a flat refusal to countenance adding an “r” to any word which doesn’t have one and the propensity to speak too fast (especially after wine). I never had a full-blown Geordie accent anyway, and after twenty years of living away from Newcastle, several of them studying other languages altogether, and with a magpie-like habit of picking up the intonation of whomever I’m speaking with, I daresay I never shall. Which is perhaps a shame, since everyone loves a Geordie, except that I can’t think of anywhere beyond light entertainment or call centres that you hear much of it on a national level.

While my youngest is currently sporting an inexplicable Somerset twang (“this is moy foyre engine”), the older two are developing fine local accents of their own (think Vic Reeves, but higher-pitched). I nearly drove into a lamppost a couple of weeks ago when the five year old, spotting a (real) fire engine extinguishing a small blaze in a neighbour’s garage, announced excitedly that there was “waaaaaaaaater aaaal over the flaaaaaaaaar”. Having righted the steering wheel just in time, I launched without thinking into full Henry Higgins mode, probably making the firefighters wonder why the harrassed-looking woman in the people carrier seemed to be pulling funny faces at them through the windscreen.

I do find myself correcting some words that the children say, and now I’m starting to wonder why. Is it because they’re developing an accent which is still a little bit alien to me? I don’t think anything less of the people around me who speak with that same accent, although it isn’t the prettiest in the world. My own father is a singer who has a sideline in folk songs from Durham and Northumberland, and I’ve always loved the richness of the language and its history. I’m proud of where I’m from and where I live, and yet the fact remains that at a national level much of what is heard about this area is negative. Is it, then, that I want my children when they speak not to be associated with those tales of economic depression, disadvantage and underachievement? Am I afraid that whatever they say will automatically be discounted on grounds of cuteness or quaintness? Or is it just that I was never that keen on Vic Reeves anyway?

To stick with Harry Potter, for example, the only distinctive accent I can think of is Hagrid. He’s a larger than life character in every way, but perhaps that’s the point. Regional accents are “character”, they add something beyond what is actually being said, so that at its worst, it’s the accent itself rather than the speaker which is heard. I feel a bit of a traitor and a hypocrite for buying into and reinforcing this belief that speaking “well” (i.e. a poshed up Estuary English) should be the default, the neutral, any deviation from which merits comment and distinction, and yet I do. What’s more, I bet I’m not the only one.

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11 thoughts on “A cute accent

  1. I’m in a different camp to you, I’m originally from Yorkshire, my partner was born in Dorset and move to Scotland when he was 1 year old. We live in the Highlands (albeit a very touristy, anglicised area) and I sort of hope that my son will grow up with at least some of my northern twang. I don’t want him to have a generic estuary English accent (his dad who grew up here does as both his parents were English), but neither do I want him to have a broad Scottish accent either, as that isn’t really his background. I think it’s probably a very selfish bit of me that doesn’t want him to grow up to have a characterless accent and that is probably because my accent has always given me a very definite root in other peoples eyes (ears).
    I think the generic English accent is becoming more of standard accent as people move around the country, and world, accents get mixed and we’re gradually losing what grounds us and makes us individual. Seems a shame.

    1. Thanks for your comment.

      I agree it seems a shame that “normal” is becoming just one thing and everything else carries a bit of baggage. I like my children sounding like they’re from the North, but it does wind me up when certain pronunciations are laughed at…

  2. Ey up lass!
    I am currently trying to stamp out my daughters Lahndahn accent but it’s not working. She still insists on having a barth. My sisters children have now acquired thick West Country accents but can slip into perfect Yorkshire when they want to. I suppose accents are characterful although having lived and worked in London I never found it a problem.

    1. Why aye pet!

      Thanks for your comment. Good to know you didn’t find it a problem in London. My brother is (deliberately) very broad Geordie and plays up to the stereotypes…probably only has himself to blame for being treating as a comedy turn sometimes!

  3. I found myself in a similar predicament when I started university. All of a sudden you’re thrown into this mix of accents and dialects, and people start to really pick up on your pronunciation. Anything said in a long Yorkshire accent suddenly becomes hilarious apparently!

    I completely agree that accents add character -so that when a person speaks to another for the first time, they not only get what that person is saying, but the history and connotations behind the way in which they say those words. This creates preconceptions of that person and their background, family and education.

    It does seem inescapable unless you start to change it to a more ‘normal’ accent.

    1. Hi, and thanks for commenting!

      Totally agree with the “hilarious” bit – sometimes it doesn’t matter, I suppose, but you always wonder if everything you say is being found funny along with the way you say it…

  4. Oh, I know what you mean about Londoners ‘congratulating’ you on not having a broad Northern accent. I used to say, no, I don’t keep whippets or wear a flat cap either… I am a bit wistful about not having a stronger Yorkshire accent, tbh, when I go back home I love listening to it. One of my best friends from ds’s school is a mum from Lancashire who I just gravitated towards because she sounded Northern – it just made me warm to her when I was standing at the school gates for the first time, knowing no-one.

    ds is growing up in the Home Counties so sadly no chance he’ll have even a trace of Northern. In fact, when I took him to stay with my Mother, he sidled up to me when I took him to the park and asked me why the other kids were talking funny…

    1. Thanks for your comment!

      I suppose I’m just as guilty of warming more to other people’s accents when they sound like they’re more like me! It’s a minefield, isn’t it?

      I hope your son discovers a love of all things Northern in time ;-)

  5. The “Somerset” accent is all over children’s TV. Lots of characters speak in this weird not quite south west manner. Listen and you’ll spot it.

  6. I agree – I often get the “but you don’t sound like you’re from Newcastle” response.
    I am working on convincing people that we don’t all sound like Ant & Dec or Cheryl Cole.
    And I cringe if my children say something in too strong an accent, just as much as I inwardly cringe at their cousins southern twang.

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