I’m not even sure if it’s people with cut-glass accents who still win the human race in this country but certainly the holders of the reins of power are as comfortably public school as ever. In an effort to instil an air of literacy in my children – so that they might, in future, be mistaken for the ‘right’ sort of people and possibly marry into them – I insist at home that we speak a form of Received Pronunciation.
So the city of ‘Glasgow’ is ‘Glarsgo’, no matter what the natives call it and a ‘garage’ is a ‘garaarge’ not a ‘garidge’ – though ‘Farage’, as in ‘Nigel Farage’, is still pronounced ‘prat’. The only H that gets dropped in our house is when saying the letter H or, occasionally, when referring to ‘an Hotel’.
So far, my home-grown social engineering experiment seems to have worked. Now my children come over posh, more compellingly than David Beckham, while my own accent turns out to be less consistent.
You see – ‘dan the Norf En’ Road market’ I come over all Geezerish and, ‘star sanding a bit ows yer farfer.’ Please understand, it’s not full-on, ‘a’ulls’n’pears, sawluv the errf, mockney innit.’ Just a whiff of the Thames estuary. A few glottal stops and a tiny consonantal shift.
So confident are my plummy children in their accents, the moment they hear me utter, ‘Arf a panuv yer strawbs,’ they go pink; wavering between derision and mortification.
‘You can’t do that,’ my daughter Roxana hisses, ‘he’ll think you’re taking the P!’ Oh yes she’s far too elevated to allow that word anything but a first letter.
But it’s not that I do it consciously. When in Rome I try to speak Italian, in the market I get all Geezerish. Some unconscious part of me is willing a compatriotism, a rapport, and trusting that that will make sure my ‘strawbs’ won’t carry the all-over bruising of a personal assistant to Naomi Campbell.
As we leave the stall, Roxana berates me, ‘Daddy, why do you do that? You’re completely unconvincing and you’re not fooling anybody. It’s embarrassing.’
Being embarrassing is automatic status conferred on anybody who would be father to a teenage girl but, ‘I’m not trying to fool anybody,’ I retort, ‘no one has ever called me on it and, look, I’m just trying to make others feel comfortable.’
But is that it? Or is that I’m petrified of being different? Do I want to fit in, Zelig style, because I was brought up by a Jewish father who, traumatized by the holocaust, prioritized assimilation above all else? Fit in, fit in, that’s how you survive. In my teenage punk hair-dying phase, family friend, poet and camp survivor Frederic Samson said to me, ‘only those who could fade away wouldn’t be killed. You. You’d be one of the first.’ Which definitely didn’t give me nightmares for years to come.
But shouldn’t I be demonstrating some backbone? Some sort of pride in my accent? Shouldn’t I, unlike the embarrassed BBC, wear this RP badge of our hard earned middle-classness with honour? But then I remember my bus journey to school and the teasing, the threats and the kicks from the kids from the ‘Comp’, all for talking with, ‘a plum up yer bum.’ And how, only when I learnt the ‘f’ for ‘th’ exchange and a sma’ering of T-glottalization, the bullying moved to some other unsuspecting posho.
Is it through cowardice that the register of my accent changes with the environment? Is it a weakness of conviction or an embarrassment of riches? Or am I just recognising that a common language doesn’t create automatic understanding.
As a child, in a department store in America, I once found myself ‘caught short’ – both physically and linguistically. In vain I pleaded for, ‘the loo, the toilet, the W.C., the gents, the bog, a urinal, place to pee,’ and twenty other European terms, desperately hopping from one leg to the other. Finally the assistant smiled, ‘You mean the bathroom honey?’ pointing the way to a room which, surprisingly, had no bath.
Right up to the end of the twentieth century, your accent marked out your class, your education, and your prospects; it was a key indicator of status. It inspired contempt, or jealousy, scorn or respect. But now, as ‘class’ seems to dissipate, perhaps we make less assumptions about accent. There’s no accent on social media, Americanisms kinda permeate everywhere, and though the fear of being judged may be withering, I can’t seem to stop a lifetime’s habit of chameleon linguistics.
One day, maybe, accents will be so devoid of meaning, what counts will be what we say not how we say it. But for now, down the market, you know how much a bottle of shampoo costs? Pantene.