An encounter with a lady originally from Belfast leads Norky to muse on accents and their fascinating historical and geographical variations
During our walking group’s rambles, we often bump into people who are prepared to stop and enter into conversation, probably for the same reason as we do – that is, we’re all glad of the breather, particularly halfway up a steep hill, of which there are many in our neck of the woods.
We bumped into a woman the other day, I would say of about 50 years old. During our conversation, I asked her if I could detect an Irish lilt in her accent. She immediately apologised saying, “I’ve lived in Huddersfield for 30 years and still have my Belfast accent”.
I insisted that she shouldn’t apologise, not only because the Irish accent is very pleasing on the ear, but because our accents partly define who we are, and we should all be proud of our roots.
Let’s be proud of our accents
There have been times when people tried to cover their humble beginnings by developing a middle England accent, particularly in politics, teaching, university posts, the BBC and the higher echelons of the military. Of course, efforts should be made to make ourselves understood, and I think to an extent, we all do that: we speak in a certain way in our own home and within our family environment but express ourselves differently elsewhere. Even so, in my humble opinion, we must proudly keep our basic accents.
I have never lived outside Huddersfield, nor can I speak a foreign language. English has always been more than difficult enough for me. Therefore, I cannot distinguish the subtle differences in the regional accents in a foreign language, but there must be few other languages with as many differences in accents and dialects in such a small area as there are in Britain.
The changing sounds of English
If we were to magically invent a time machine and go back to, say Shakespeare’s time, 16th-17th century, we could tell them a thing or two about the dramatic events that were coming their way.
They would be interested to hear of the imminent gunpowder plot in 1605 during the reign of King James 1. We would explain how distrust of the monarchy during this period would culminate in Charles 1 being tried for treason and executed in 1649. We would describe the glorious revolution of 1688, the act of union 1707 and the continued conflict with our nearest and dearest European neighbour, France, until a battle near a small town called Waterloo in 1815.
We would recount the horrors of the slave trade and its abolition in 1833, as well as the two world wars of 1914–1918 and 1939–1945. One thing that would surprise them the most would be the formation of the Welfare State in 1945 and the NHS in 1948, where the government and others of power and influence were willing (I suspect begrudgingly in some cases) to help the poor and needy.
Well, we could tell them all these things and more, if only we could make ourselves understood. The sounds of English have changed so much in the intervening years that understanding each other would be a challenge. It helps to explain why many of Shakespeare’s jokes fall flat for us – they rely on puns in words that no longer sound the same. Here’s an example of how linguists now think Shakespeare’s English was actually pronounced.
Accents in all their variety
Imagine what it would be like even now for a Londoner to suddenly find themselves in a local pub at closing time in say Glasgow, Hartlepool or indeed in the centre of God’s country, Barnsley. It’s very likely that they wouldn’t be able to understand a word – just what it would have been like for us everywhere in the 16th century. It would be English, of course, or a version of it. Except perhaps in Glasgow.
I’m never certain what language they speak there. Of all the accents that I encounter, the Glaswegian accent is my most troublesome. As a nation, we are the richer for it. Doubtless, the good folk of Glasgow, with their rich and colourful accent have things to say that deserve our full respect, if only we could understand them. I’m sure they do it on purpose.
Go to anywhere in God’s country and seek out an old farmer and attempt to start a conversation – that is, if you can get past the first comment from him, which could be “Gerroff mi land or I’ll set mi dogs on ya”, which I’m glad to say is getting less likely these days. But if you get as far as a conversation, you’ll discover many variations of the Yorkshire accent, and that’s just in one county, but as we all know it is a vast area of hills, valleys, moors, lakes and a coast, from boroughs of tiny quiet hamlets to busy bustling cities.
Yorkshire: pride in our accent, landmarks and, of course, cricket
I’m proud to be from Yorkshire, and proud of my accent, and so should everybody, no matter where they’re from. After all, they can’t help being born outside Yorkshire.
Whitby Abbey on left, and The Green beside the River Colne in Marsden. The little bridge in the background is often mistaken as a packhorse bridge, when in fact it was constructed for the vicar to get from the vicarage behind the trees on the right to the church behind the trees on the left.
In 1975, Uncle Ronnie emigrated to the USA. My dad and Uncle Ronnie were fanatical Yorkshire cricket supporters. One day, Dad had to send his brother some sad news, which he did in the following telegram: