OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI haven’t revisited my home town, in the English Midlands, for more than a decade. When I used to, and particularly in the first few of the forty or so years I have lived elsewhere, locals would remark on how I’d picked up a northern accent.

Up north (oop north to some) I’m still told, though not quite so often these days, on the basis of my voice, that I’m not from round here. This helpful observation, repeated over the decades, has led to me thinking of myself as the Incomer I’ve been labelled, rather than as the ‘adopted northerner’ I’d romantically imagined myself to be in the beginning.

But my voice has undoubtedly changed, and not only in the vowel sounds, but in the order of words, and in the selection of words, varying away from, and, more recently, back towards my remembered Midland accent. It’s not all to do with being up north of course. Language, and the way we speak it changes over time, and over the voices we hear, which in the modern world are as often as not coming from long distances away from where we are actually hearing them.

Being cast as an incomer, and having what is oddly referred to as a white skin, in a predominantly white skinned area, means the identification is mostly down to voice. Yet the writer A.A.Gill has pointed to his own RP accent as masking his Scottishness, and in our so called multi-cultural society we often encounter people whose physiognomy might deceive us as to their origins.

But speech and language are learned, not inherited, and they are learned by listening. I remember a Scottish tour guide in Austria telling us how her Bavarian learned German amused the locals in the Tyrol. ‘Gruss Gott’-ing a Rhinelander, one imagines, might be like ‘ay up me ode’-ing a southerner. And the many varieties of Europeans I encountered – in addition to us – in the hotel trade in Cumbria sometimes spoke a mouth-watering Cumbrian dialect. How we speak reflects how we have heard, and how we have listened, and what we have engaged with. Those who maintain the ‘purity’ of their accents might be revealing more about their attitudes to those around them than they know. I wrote a poem about this several years ago, inspired by my conversations with the late Jimmy Robinson of Martindale. It later appeared in a Loweswater village newsletter! Here it is:

Doggin’ In

Y’ud think dog were delinquent

To hear Jimmy shout

Face red wi’ effort: Come On COME ON YE BUGGER

Y’ud think it were cowt

Doowin’ somat wrang

Up on t’fell

Nat bringin’ down t’yows

 

Y’ud nat think sick a frail auld chap

ud be sae strang in lung

as tae giv tung seck clout

t’owd dog knaws its nowt

tae fret about

Comes by an’s browt tae heel

Soon enow

 

Aye well, we tell each other

 

I slip into t’auld twang: his not mine.

I’m midlands: up cum fut

But folk as stand

And talk together

Start to sound alike

It’s them as doan’t

end up apt te misunderstand.

(poem by Mike Smith)

The  ‘up cum fut’ was what, at Charlotte Mason College in the nineteen seventies, I was told to lose, if I wanted to be a teacher, but the vowel (vaahl in Midlands) sound has never entirely gone away. Writing the poem required me to recapture my Burton accent, as well as to try to capture the accent with which I heard Jimmy speak. Neither proved easy, and reading it aloud is always like walking a verbal tightrope. Much later, when I came to write the story called ‘The Man Who Found A Barrel Full of Beer’, I reached for that Burton voice once again. I can still detect it on strangers, across a crowded room, and maybe fall a little bit in love with it! The novella A Penny Spitfire (by Brindley Hallam Dennis) was set in the re-imagined town, but narrated in standard English. You can find it on Amazon in paperback & e-book forms.APennySpitfire-frontcover

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