Monday, 10 October 2011

The Beauty of the Regional Accent

I love regional accents.

Until I was sixteen my exposure to them was entirely through the telly. My mum’s favourite soap at the time was Emmerdale Farm -  Coronation Street being a bit too close to home. It took me seven years of concentrated viewing to understand that,

“’Appen as’ mebbe’" meant, “I suppose so.”

The difficulty was in the lack of exposure to variety. In those carefree days before The Bill and Eastenders, people from London were assumed to sound like Richard Baker off the news or Jack Regan off the Sweeney, with nothing in between. I had no idea what Billy Connolly said to Michael Parkinson, but it must have been funny. Max Boyce and Tom Jones were plying their lonely trade as the only high profile Welshmen to grace our screens.

Regional accents then, to me, were these strange, impenetrable things that were simply a bar to understanding.

This all changed on September 3rd 1985. For reasons still unclear to me, despite writing a book about it, I joined the army and turned up at a place that seemed to be a cross between Eton and a borstal, The Army Apprentices College, Harrogate. Amongst the many lessons I learnt there (like how to eat really quickly and masturbate undetected in a ten man room), was how to love the myriad accents and dialects to be encountered in the UK.

I didn’t get off to a great start. I shared a room with nine other recruits and the Room NCO. We had a mixture of Scots, Londoners, Scousers, a Welsh lad, a couple of home counties chaps and a Yorkshireman. This was replicated throughout the rest of the recruit troop, forming a body of 120, 16 year old lads who struggled to understand anyone who didn’t arrive at Harrogate on the same train as them.

My initial inability to negotiate this linguistic hurdle nearly saw me getting filled in for my trouble. One of the lads came back late from leave and I asked him why.
He replied simply,

“I gat on de wang metwo.”

Even written down 27 years later, I’m a bit confused by it. He was saying that he had inadvertently boarded the wrong train, but it had been converted into a strong Geordie accent, further clouded by the speaker’s inability to pronounce his ‘r’s.

I spent the next five minutes staring bleakly, saying, ‘Eh?’ as he shouted that he’d gat on de wang metwo repeatedly and more angrily with each repetition.

It was only the quick interpretative thinking of a fellow recruit from Darlington that saved my bacon.

After that early scare, I soon learned that accents weren’t to be feared, but embraced and used to good effect. Most of us became excellent mimics and enjoyed the attempts at each others twangs. I started to enjoy the differences. No one was better at the dismissive phrase than the lads from Scotland, so, “Awa’ tae fuck” was used by us all to give our speech extra emphasis.

The boys from the north east seemed to have sardonic humour off to a tee, so whenever we were cheesed off and needed to pass comment, the Newcastle accent was perfect. Stood on the square, snow filling your left ear like one of those old hearing aids, with a two hour drill lesson in the offing, you’d often hear a comment from the rear rank,

“How man, this is nee laffin’ matta!!”

As I said at the top, I love the regional accent and I’m hopeful that they’ll never disappear. My chldren are from Manchester but have a worrying tendency to use words they pick up from ICarly and other American programmes which seem to serve the principal function of teaching kids how to be smartarses.

Fortunately, the Americanisms are counterbalanced by some solid northern-ness and, when pushed, my daughter can scream, “Alright love?” in a style that makes Julie Goodyear sound like Joyce Grenfell.

In an attempt to see if I’ve still ‘got it,’ I’ll occasionally try and use an accent in its place of origin. In 1996 I had a fascinating conversation with a mono-toothed old lady at a sandwich wagon near London. Adopting my best cockney, pitched somewhere between Pete Beale and Mike Reid, I attempted to buy a bacon sandwich and a cup of tea. If she’d rumbled my hackneyed act, she didn’t let on, content to let me fiddle about with imaginary braces whilst using the word, ‘tweacle’ more than is probably legal.

I was in Liverpool last month for a medical. Scouse is always a tricky one. It looks straightforward, but you can find yourself veering off into Brummy or Welsh very quickly if you get complacent. I was early so went to a Starbucks for a coffee, prepping myself by pronouncing it, ‘Schtarbucksh’ on the way in. I asked the girl behind the counter for an Americano, but put stretched out the ‘carrrrrrr’ sound so much, it was obvious she’d rumbled me, her eyebrow raised in a, ‘What a knobhead,’ statement. The trouble was we still had a transaction to complete and I found myself working my way back down the East Lancs in embarrassment as we went, morphing from St Helens to Salford by the time I’d got my change.

Regional accents are as much to be celebrated as any other elements of our culture. If it’s not something you usually do, you should take the opportunity to have a little dabble yourself, from time to time.

As you’re reading this, think of the word, ‘Kentucky.’

Now say it out loud in the strongest cockney accent you can muster. Lay it on thick, hold nothing back.

I bet you couldn’t do it without moving your head!!!

1 comment:

  1. I moved to the Shetland Islands as a lad in 1980. Couldn't understand a word the teachers said