Sunday, 27 April 2014

Accent and Identity: it's the way I say it!

My Northern Ireland accent is a great source of entertainment for the rest of the family.  Husband has  always found the way I say certain words amusing and goes out of his way, for example, to make me say 'vinegar' ('What kind of crisps did you get?'),  falling about laughing when I say the word.  Now my daughter has joined in and is very good indeed at mimicking me.  This amuses her school friends greatly. (She is a student at the school where I teach.)  On Friday evening we went out to our favourite restaurant in Chester, Joseph Benjamin, and the two of them spent the whole evening teasing me mercilessly, going through the whole repertoire of words I say which amuse them - shower, down, foundered (a dialect word meaning cold), surely, film (two syllables for me fil -um) etc.

Unlike down south sister, I haven't really lost my accent despite living in England for most of my adult life. She says it's because of work  - people on the phone couldn't understand her so she gradually changed the way she said certain words.  I have never felt the need to do this, expecting my students to deal with my accent as I do with theirs.  This is fine most of the time but a few weeks ago I was talking to my year 11 class about a poem we had studied last year called 'Hour' and they insisted  hadn't done it.  It then dawned on me that they didn't understand what I was saying, for they say the word 'hour' with two syllables whereas for me it is one (Aaar).  Michael Gove would not be impressed - perhaps he'll put speaking RP as a requirement on the new standards for teachers.

My accent gets stronger when I return to Northern Ireland or even talk to people on the phone from over there.  My daughter says she could could always tell when I was talking to her granda because the way I talk would change. There's been all sorts of research on accent and how people modify the way they speak in different situations.  It's all to to do with our sense of identity.  So I hang on to my accent because it's an important part of who I am.  

Seamus Heaney wrote about this too in 'Clearances, exploring how he and his mother spoke to each other.  As he puts it better than me I'll stop here:

From 'Clearances'

Fear of affectation made her affect
Inadequacy whenever it came to
Pronouncing words 'beyond her'. Bertold Brek.
She'd manage something hampered and askew
Every time, as if she might betray
The hampered and inadequate by too
Well-adjusted a vocabulary.
With more challenge than pride, she'd tell me, 'You
Know all them things.' So I governed my tongue
In front of her, a genuinely well-
Adjusted adequate betrayal
Of what I knew better. I'd naw and aye
And decently relapse into the wrong
Grammar which kept us allied and at bay.


  1. I find a Northern Ireland accent comforting. I don't know why, I just love it. I am not so good at differentiating many of the other different accents of the British Isles but another 15 years will hopefully change this. As a native Swiss German speaker living in Scotland I have an accent that is difficult to place and I forever enjoy the guessing when I meet new people.

    1. People often think I am Scottish actually as mine is a country accent and, I suppose, a bit similar.

  2. My mother's family came from the Black Country - around Birmingham, and whenever we spent a lot of time together, my father would claim he couldn't understand us. Now though, I don't think anyone would know where I came from from my accent, although I suspect a slight Birmingham twang might filter in occasionally.

  3. I'm glad you haven't lost your accent although I'm sure you've picked up a few local sayings - I even have a few Lancashire expressions as my husband spent a lot of his childhood in Oldham!
    Coming from the Cooley peninsula , I found that when I visited cousins in Co Down they said I spoke with a 'Free State 'accent yet when I went to college in Dublin, everyone said I had a 'northern accent'. It always fascinates me how accents can change in just a short distance.

    1. I certainly have as my husband is from Liverpool. The most bizarre is his use of the word 'shreddies' to refer to his underwear! It might just be him though.