Wednesday, August 26, 2009

When it comes to accents I really am the creme de la creme

We spent the whole of our holiday in Edinburgh trying as hard as possible not to break into our 'Scoortish' accents. Last year we found ourselves using them the moment the train pulled into Waverley, paticularly when saying words such as 'haggis'. I resisted doing my 'Prime of Miss Jean Brodie' meets Alexander McCall Smith meets Wee Jimmy Krankie accent for a whole week until, in the taxi on the way back to the station, I related a story about a nurse I had met the night before and started 'doing' her voice. By the time I realised what I was doing, it was too late. We all sat silently red-faced, hoping our Scottish taxi driver hadn't heard my terribly disrespectful accent.

My problem is that I am a sponge for accents, picking up the speech patterns of those around me and parroting them without even realising. I flatter myself this is a compunction with Darwinian roots. People who pick up other people's accents are, I believe, empathetic and socially intelligent. Although they may not be consciously aware of it, they are adapting to fit in to their circumstances . That's my story anyway and I'm sticking to it.

A good example of this is my father who is an extremely gregarious, socially adept man who soon lost a strong Dorset accent after moving north of London as a young man, although traces remain. I'm also aware of many people who have very different accents for different situations. A friend of my mothers has a special voice for dealing with market traders for instance, saying things like 'paand of taters' with the requisite glottal stop. Similarly, I worked once for an organisation where we sometimes had to deal with callers from South Africa and you always knew when someone was taking one as they started saying 'yis' rather than 'yes'.

Of course the problem is people think you are being patronising or even worse taking the piss! Telling them that you are actually trying to fit in with them isn't exactly going to wash. However I'll leave the final analysis to Henry Kissinger's brother. Apparently on being asked why had an American accent while his brother had a German accent he said: 'I listen to people'.

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