On Being British . . . Or Not

22 March 2013

What’s in an accent? A way of twisting words, a slight inflection, a gargle in the right spot? Much of it has to do with that, mediated by locality and culture. We usually speak our surrounds – often physical location, but also our social circumstances. I grew up around building sites, and heard the rough, low drawl in one ear and the much fainter, mellower tones of the middle class off in the distance in the other. Yet there was something that linked the two ways of speaking – a kind broadening never heard in the big cities to the south, a twang that I never quite managed to tweak myself. And neither did my brother, perhaps because our grandparents influenced us heavily in our earlier years and led us to a way of speaking that was a little less circumspect, but a little more suspect to some.

I once took a phone call from a close relative who told me I sounded like a poof. Her words, not mine.

When I arrived in Hong Kong people started to comment on my British accent. I’ve been dealing with people in a corporation in the US lately who have said much the same. It’s odd how people’s expectations guide them. Take a voice a little out of the ordinary (and I mean a very little, really), a lot more out of context, and push it towards a comfortable category.   

I’m Australian, by the way. Northern. You can’t get an accent a terrible lot less British than that.