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I Have an Accent, but it's Not My First!

"You have an accent!" is a statement I heard for the first time an hours' drive north of my (current) hometown. At the time, I was only a little suprised to hear it. I'd moved to Canada only months before, so I was half-expecting people might pick up on my fresh-off-the-plane lilt.

My natural response was, "So do you!" only to realise later that the woman to whom I'd said it had probably lived most of her life in the small Ontario sattelite town I was visiting, and that anything sounding different from her Anglo-Canadian diction would be considered 'an accent'.

Toronto, by contrast, is one of the most linguistically diverse cities in the world. It's not unusual to hear a plethora of languages spoken around 'Tronna' each day, and not just from tourists. According to the most recent census, 45% of its residents speak a mother tongue other than French or English.

It goes without saying that we usually end up speaking like those around us. This is partly due to a need to be understood and accepted by our peers, but this is also sometimes influenced by a wish to be more like those we are disposed to emulate: a role model (or even a class/in-group). These changes can be consiously or subconsciously driven. For me, it was both.

I grew up in the UK's second-largest city. Its reputation was one of filthy factory smoke stacks, overcrowded soot-blackened back-to-back houses post-modernist concrete fly-overs. These were all clearly visible as you flew past on the M1 motorway enroute to somewhere else.

Only that was the main problem that perpetuated the myth: most drove by and never visited. While the auto-centrist post-war concrete had been a reality of my youth (now demolished and given a much-needed makeover), most of the smoke stacks and back-to-backs had mostly been consigned to the annals of history.

Nevertheless, the bad rep of the city had left it (and its people) open to decades of abuse in the media as being somehow culturally deprived or backward.

TV series characters that were supposed hail from the West Midlands (but almost always portrayed by actors that were not) were often depicted as stupid or slow.

Bear in mind this was all before Peaky Blinders put Birmingham on the map of cool (although almost all of the actors struggle with getting the accent right).

A study into dialect and perceived intelligence carried out by the University of South Wales in 2015 concluded that people with a Brummie accent were better off saying nothing at all if they wanted to succeed in life.

It's probably no small wonder then, that I started to smooth the rougher edges of my Brummie accent the moment I became aware of its associated social stigma. I got flak, initially from a few locals who viewed me as some kind of class traitor, and then later from others further afield (when I moved to East Anglia to go to college) for the occasional Brummie shibboleth!

I distinctly remember my homestay sister tauntingly demanding (ironically, in her heavily-accented Ipswich twang) that I repeat for her delight the word singer, a word pronounced with a hard g along a linguistic corridor stretching between Birmingham and Manchester.

Fast-forward a couple more years, and I was working in my first 'proper' job as a graphic designer in the wonderful city of Bristol, the name itself containing its own shibboleth! Something I eventually picked up from West-country accents was rhoticity (pronouncing the r after a vowel, a feature most other English accents no longer have). This would have me pronouncing the third letter of my first name (Mark) for the first time!

I lost my post-vocalic-r-pronouncing pretty quickly when I moved to London, where such a feature is deemed by many to be—at the very least— quite rustic, and by those most linguistically bigoted, reminiscent of a country bumpkin.

Two elderly pearly queens
Typical Cockneys

It was in London that I learned that there are far more accents than just Cockney and RP. Aside from the many external influences of relatively new arrivals, I was reliably informed

that there are about a dozen traditional variants spoken across Greater London. Mind you, unless you're a native Londoner, you'd be hard-pressed to tell one variant from another. However, my wife (whom I was fortunate to meet while living there) is very quick to point out that her Southeast London accent should never be confused with Cockney (Eastenders).

This brings me to another fact I hardly need point out: many of us are very protective of our accents. They are a major part of who we are. They can hint at many things on our life's journey other than where it began, including (but not limited to) socio-economic status and level of education.

If you try to mimic an accent, you have to be extremely careful not to raise heckles. Get it right and you may be praised for your 'good ear'. Get it slightly wrong and a countryman from your target region will, in the very best-case scenario, mock you for your clumsy attempt. Worse than that, you could be accused of mocking them. Worst-case scenario (especially if your target accent is one not from your own country), you could turn them against you and/or be branded a racist. Whatever your intention, we don't live in a cultural vaccum, and feelings can run high.

An ancient pen-and-ink illustration of a chimera
My accent were it to take physical form

This is especially true in a cosmopolitan city like Toronto. Torontonians pride themselves in their (our) diversity. It took me a while of living here to realise that, "Where are you originally from?" is not a question asked lightly. Most Toronto residents do not appreciate being othered. This was even one of the themes in a play I co-devised.

It was shortly after I moved to Canada that I was inspired to put my experience of accents to the test in a new career as a dialect coach, beginning with a play set in Yorkshire!

Suffice it to say, I am now left with something of a chimera of an accent, which many here (and even back in the UK) often find difficult to place. Whenever I'm asked where my ideolect is from, I'll usually reply, "It's from parts of England and a bit of Canada".

If you ever need help changing your accent or learning a new one, let me know.

Mark Byron Dallas (c) 2020

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