x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Accentuating the positive in the richness of English

Others may be better equipped to say whether accents, and snobbishness about them, really are more widespread in the UK and Ireland than in other countries.

Two weeks into a mostly good-humoured debate on the way people speak in different parts of Britain, a waspish message about the northern city of Newcastle upon Tyne appeared on the Mudcat internet forum. "Theres nothing worse than the geordie accent, its bloody awful," it read. "It even makes successful people seem thick and skint." My first reaction was one of amusement that someone accusing others of sounding "thick" should use such dire syntax, miss out two apostrophes and make the wrong choice of case for the first letter of Geordie, the colloquial term for a person from Newcastle. My second reaction was that the assertion itself was idiotic. But the claim is sometimes made, or implied, by educated people too. Self-important writers have devoted entire columns to denouncing the BBC for supposed discrimination in favour of broadcasters whose voices betray regional origins. Why, they bellow, are presenters with the Queen's English being squeezed out? Admittedly, my rejection of the original insult, and its more elegant echoes, has something to do with the flattened vowels left over from my own childhood in north-eastern England. But I hardly have the most pronounced of accents; my parents, Londoners, sent me to elocution lessons in the hope that I would never talk like my friends. More important than regional solidarity is a belief that we should be grateful for the extraordinary range of accents to be found in a collection of islands less than a third the size of Texas. English is enriched, not threatened, by all those Geordies, Glaswegians, Brummies, Scousers, Devonians, Tykes, Taffs and Cockneys, not to mention the Irish. People naturally have likes and dislikes - I have been known to wince at the Birmingham accent, and I struggle at times to understand Glaswegians - but there is place for each of them. In the wider world, there are now so many anglophones that what used to be regarded as the right way to speak begins to resemble the language of an endangered species. Others may be better equipped to say whether accents, and snobbishness about them, really are more widespread in the UK and Ireland than in other countries. Does the Dutchman from Amsterdam snigger when he hears someone from Rotterdam? How widely does spoken French vary around France, beyond the obvious sing-song lilt of people from around Marseille? An entertaining discussion at the popular Petite Anglaise blog produced scores of examples of cultural differences between Britain and the United States. One message was from an American who had been shocked when visiting Britain to hear so much "variation of accents in such a small space". But if the contributor thinks Americans speak broadly with one voice, save for the differences between a southern drawl and the refined tones of New England, a Texan colleague of mine "couldn't disagree more". "There is great variation even within the same state, but you certainly hear well-spoken southerners, while people in poorer parts of Boston can sound more like hicks," she says. "Geography comes into it, but it is more a matter of class and education." I know what she means. There are people I call posh Geordies who emphatically do not appear either thick or skint. But I leave the last word to another colleague, who has lived away from his native Newcastle for 40 years without sounding as if he ever left. "I haven't got an accent," he insists whenever anyone asks. "It's everyone else that has them." Colin Randall is the executive editor of The National.