Accents of Approval
Two weeks ago, I left my Kindle on a train, and it ended up in the Lost & Found section of Newcastle train station. I had to go and retrieve it, because I couldn’t understand the Geordies on the phone well enough to organize a shipment. Two things stood out to me about Newcastle. Firstly, the Tyne & Wear Metro logo is basically the Morrisons logo. “These people are obsessed with groceries,” I thought, looking at the map for the first time. “There’s a Morrisons every three blocks, and they’ve stripped out all details beyond street names and Morrisons.”
Secondly, when Geordies stand more than ten feet from me, their speech stops resembling spoken English. Although incomprehensible, the accent is so awesome that even if I could understand one damn thing anyone was saying to me I would still ask people to repeat themselves three times. Drifting to sleep in my Newcastle hostel, I re-imagined English historical figures talking this way: Queen Elizabeth, Winston Churchill, Simon Cowell… What if ‘The Kings Speech’ took place in an alternate universe where all of England spoke with a Geordie accent, except for the incapable king, whose shameful disorder caused him to speak like a member of our world’s royal family?
After seven months here, I surrender that America has nothing on England in the accent department. Y’all are the Dream Team; we are the Singapore curling team, and the game is still basketball. Consider that Leeds and Manchester both would fit in the Atlanta metropolitan area, but you’d have to travel eight hundred miles from Atlanta to Philadelphia to trace the contrast between Noel Gallagher and the cashier at my local Londis. In the US, people make a big deal out of their accents to feel special, and we do in fact have some neat little niche accents—like the Cajuns in Louisiana, Vinzers in Pittsburgh and the Gullah-speakers in South Carolina. But we basically have about six big accents: Southern, Black, New England, New York, regular, and Sarah Palin. That’s in a country with 300 million people and 3,000 miles of breadth.
Last week I mentioned that I like how Dizzee Rascal talks, and a man rolled his eyes. I assume there is some kind of bad cultural signifier attached to his accent because I haven’t heard Dizzirascalian spoken on the BBC. But I don’t understand the prejudices surrounding English accents: I innately like Dizzee Rascal’s pronunciation. I cling to a mysterious intuition that if you built a complete human being out of popsicle sticks, it would sound just like him. Now, my ambition is to learn his accent, and to convince other Americans that Dizzeerascalian is the true English. And that the English accent which Americans know was synthesized in Hollywood in the 1960’s. If anyone asks why, I’ll say, “British humor. It’s hard for us to understand.”