Accent shame

One of the aspects of my upbringing I’m most grateful for was my mother’s insistence on what she called SMB: speech, manners, and behaviour. Whenever I or my brother transgressed her accepted boundaries of any of those things, we’d be reprimanded with “SMB!”. Over time, the process of pre-emptive self-reprimand became automatic.

It’s probably impossible to exaggerate just how much I owe to those corrections, of which there were certainly thousands. The reality of life is that doors are opened by polite, considerate behaviour, and by a robust vocabulary delivered with good diction. It sets people apart from others, but it’s inevitably a double-edged sword.

With any definition of good, there must accordingly also be one of bad, existing symbiotically and in opposition. There’s explicit judgement encoded within those categories, and like all judgement, there’s generalisation. It takes a long time to separate out and begin to examine the things of childhood — especially your experiences with your own parents — and as I consider SMB, I realise that it contains not just aspiration, but also a type of shame which has been passed down between generations.

It popped into my mind recently when I was listening to how my toddler son’s speech is evolving. He’s producing multi-syllable words, and multi-word phrases reliably now, and sometimes his pronunciation is shifting accordingly. Any attempt to render an utterance phonetically in plain text is inherently relative to the writer’s own perception of vowels and consonants, but let’s take the common childhood example of the word bear, whether teddy or polar or otherwise.

There’s a particular English accent that’s probably best known via exported television; it’s seen as upper-class, and refined, and probably the product of wealth and/or some sort of lineage-maintaining breeding. It’s probably how a lot of foreign-to-the-UK people think that all English people speak. In that accent or cluster of accents, bear would be something like beah, with the r vanishing into the rear of an open mouth, unresolved and virtually unvoiced. By contrast, in much of Scotland, bear is rendered with a strong and rolling r, more like bayrr, which is a more physically taxing vocalisation. As my son has developed, his pronunciation abilities have shifted from the former to the latter. I found myself delighted at the change.

If you could ask the child that I myself once was, though, he wouldn’t be delighted; he’d probably cringe instead. I was ashamed of my own accent for years, and SMB validated and perhaps even encouraged that shame, even while it doubtless had positive effects on my manners and behaviour. The three things don’t go together in the way I was taught they do.

The UK today is an English construct, and anything English is a London-centric construct itself. The three additional countries besides England that comprise the UK — Northern Ireland, Wales, and Scotland — have always held a secondary position, and in the period of my own upbringing there was very little positive representation beyond tokenism or entertainment, for those three nations. From politicians and power-brokers, to celebrities and news anchors, there was a strong sense that an “English” accent (within the London-cluster of middle/upper class examples) is proper, and polite, and seemly, and that my own country’s various Scottish accents are lower-class, uneducated, rough, inelegant, and undesirable. There are similar casts placed on the many non-London English accents, especially of the country’s North, as well as all those accents and dialects of Wales, and the entire island of Ireland.

It really does affect your perception of yourself. I couldn’t stand to listen to Scottish accents on television for years; I was embarrassed by them, and so I couldn’t really hear them at all. What a shame, in both senses. What a waste.

That’s the perniciousness of inherited discomfort, and of the false equivalence of conformity to power with seemliness and acceptability. I look again with adult eyes, and the situation is somewhat different, but more importantly, my own perceptions have shifted radically. Now, I crave the character and the warmth and the delight and the fascination of the non-default. I deeply question the sketchy motivations behind cultural — as opposed to social, and societal — unification, because they’re usually just the acceptable mask for erasure. I love how my accent sounds, and I derive great enjoyment and satisfaction from listening to my fellow countryfolk.

It’s not a matter of one thing being proper and another not. The real lesson is that it’s good to be what you are, whatever that is, and anyone who tries to make you feel otherwise is to be distrusted. They’re probably a victim of the same thing, but there are also those who will consciously try to manipulate you into sharing their prejudice against you for their own ends.

The solution is never conformity in order to attain acceptance. Instead, the thing to do is find pride and appreciation of yourself and your background — and perhaps even to tear down the thing that would have you feel otherwise.