On my recent trip to England and Scotland, I was given the opportunity to hear a profusion of accents in my own native tongue.
It’s not that I didn’t know about these, but it was a chance to hear the ways in which class and region identify Britons, and the surprising ways accents fail to do so by race.
I didn’t spend much time in London; my first destination was St. Albans, north of the capital. It’s the town where my mother-in-law was born. She still retains most of her English accent at 92.
St. Albans is a prosperous town. Many young professionals ride the trains into London and live where life is less hectic.
Walking the “city centre,” as they call downtown, I was struck at once by the number of young mothers pushing small children in perambulators. Often wearing dresses, they seemed healthy and self-confident.
I encountered many young adults at a pub’s beer garden. They usually spoke educated British. Though the crowd was predominately white, Asians — which in Britain means people originally from India and Pakistan — spoke in the same accent as the others.
It was quite different in the north in a village near the town of Scunthorpe. My wife and I stayed with a longtime friend of hers and their family. I heard three distinct accents in the same household. The wife is from Canada and speaks almost like an American, with a British seasoning acquired over a quarter of a century.
The husband, who grew up locally, speaks the Lincolnshire accent of his upbringing. The wife says local people didn’t know initially how to place her, whereas her husband cannot open his mouth without people putting him, for better or worse, into a social hierarchy.
The two children speak another accent altogether. It’s the kind of English you might hear on the BBC, although I’m told that even the BBC has more accentual variety than it used to.
We went to Edinburgh and heard a profusion of accents. Many people in the service industry are from Poland, Latvia and Romania. Immigrants speak in national accents.
I’ve heard Spanish accents too. In one pub, the guys behind the bar spoke Spanish. I asked the young waitress where she was from. She said her family had come from India, but she had grown up locally. Only then did I recognize her accent. I was a little embarrassed, though I realized later that we simply hadn’t previously exchanged enough words for me to fix her accent.
There were surprises. In one Edinburgh shop, the proprietor wore the turban and beard of a practicing Sikh, but his accent was absolutely Scottish.
Indeed, one of the things I noticed is that although there are regional accents, except for first-generation immigrants you don’t hear distinctive ethnic accents.
In America, you can often recognize black people by their accent, but the same is not true in the UK. Black people take on the accent of their social environment. Sometimes it’s educated “posh” English, and often it is working class.
Occasionally I had trouble following people’s language because of their accent. This was especially true with the Pakistani immigrant who married my wife’s cousin. He was a gracious host and we had interesting talks. His English is excellent, but I sometimes asked him to repeat himself.
In a talk about Brexit, my host complained about Eastern European immigrants. “They don’t even speak English!” he expostulated.
I nodded agreeably. Without an accent, I hope.