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Dan Shewan

The Wrong Kind of Bastard

Dark Chamber by Taha Heydari

In 1964, shortly before the American theatrical release of Richard Lester’s Beatles comedy mockumentary, A Hard Day’s Night, a United Artists executive whose name has been lost to history approached Lester to request that the Fab Four’s Liverpudlian accents be dubbed with a Mid-Atlantic American accent to make the film more appealing to audiences in the United States. In response, Paul McCartney replied, “Look, if we can understand a fuckin’ cowboy talking Texan, they can understand us talking Liverpool.”

The film was never dubbed, and The Beatles’ Scouse accents remained intact as they rode the wave of Beatlemania across the ocean to even greater fame and fortune in America.

McCartney was born in 1942 in the predominantly working-class area of Walton in Liverpool, in a hospital that used to be the West Derby Poor Law Institution, a Victorian workhouse. My mother, Carol, was born six years after McCartney in Aigburth, a suburb of Liverpool roughly five miles south of Walton. My mother shared little in common with McCartney besides their birthplace and distinctive manner of speaking. McCartney’s mother was a midwife, his father a jazz musician. My grandmother was the landlady of a pub that doubled as a meeting place for the resistance during World War II, my grandfather a Dutch immigrant who had served in the Merchant Navy. My grandfather’s English was decent, but his Dutch accent was thick. He died more than twenty years before I was born, but my mother would often tell stories of how he’d pronounce the silent “k” in words like “knock” and “knife.” K-nock. K-nife. He’d also mispronounce the past tense of certain verbs, mistakenly enunciating the “-ed” at the end. Clo-zed. Plea-zed. My grandmother gently corrected him throughout the course of their marriage, but my grandfather continued to mispronounce many of the words in his adopted tongue until he died of a massive stroke when my mother was just fourteen.

Shortly after the death of my grandfather, my mother fled Liverpool not just in the hope of improving her meager station in life, but to escape her abusive older brother, Eugene, a man who once fought off six policemen after coming home from the pub in a drunken rage so ferocious my mother ran barefoot down the street in her slip to beg the staff sergeant at the local police station to send more men to subdue him. My mother desperately wanted to forget about Liverpool, about Eugene, but most of all, she wanted to forget about the death of her beloved pappje, for whom she carried a deep and abiding grief for many years. Mum ran away to escape the suffering and misery she had endured as a child, but she also sought to cast off her working-class background as she ran; her accent marked her as the poor, common girl she was, the kind of girl that people dismissed with furrowed brows and an impatient, condescending wave. John, Paul, George, and Ringo may have been able to alchemize their working-class charm into gold, but if she wanted to be taken seriously, she had no choice but to learn how to talk all over again. My mother worked hard to leave behind the rough Scouse accent she’d had since she was a little girl. But she could hardly afford to seek elocution lessons from a speech coach. She was a runaway with nothing but the clothes on her back and less than half a shilling in her pockets when she arrived on the doorstep of my Aunt Mary’s house in Cambridge. With few options, my mother did the only thing she could—she imitated the Queen’s English she heard on the radio.

The Queen’s English, as most people imagine it, doesn’t technically exist. When people talk about “the Queen’s English,” they’re talking about an accent known as Received Pronunciation, or RP. An accent in the truest sense, RP is unique in several ways. It is not specific to a particular geographic region. It is most commonly associated with southeastern England—London and the Home Counties that surround the capital in particular—but it doesn’t bind the speaker to a certain place the way Scouse binds Liverpudlians to Merseyside. Despite being used as auditory shorthand for the very essence of Britishness, the quintessentially, unmistakably British accent, it’s almost never used in Scotland or Wales, which really makes it an English accent, not a British one. That’s not to say it isn’t heard in these places, only that it is very rarely spoken. Recent estimates state that fewer than two percent of the British population are RP speakers. However, what really sets RP apart from its regional, colloquial cousins is that it’s considered a social accent, an indication of a person’s education, wealth, and status, as opposed to a linguistic anchor that moors us to the places we come from.

Despite the reverence some linguists have for it, RP takes its name not from divine origins; this distinctive pattern of speech wasn’t handed down like the word of God to the Thessalonians. Instead, it relies on the original meaning of the word “received,” which was defined shortly after the introduction of the printing press in the 15th century to mean “accepted.” It was originally called Public School Pronunciation, a name given to the accent by phonetician Daniel Jones, who included phonetic deconstructions of English words using Public School Pronunciation in his English Pronouncing Dictionary, first published in 1917. A few years later in 1922, John Charles Walsham Reith, the first General Manager of the BBC, decided that RP would be the most easily understood accent to audiences across Great Britain and beyond, and adopted it as the standard for the newly established broadcaster. This is why RP is also sometimes referred to as “BBC English.” Ironically, Reith—who arguably did more to advance RP than any other individual—was Scottish. Reith came from Stonehaven, a small town in Aberdeenshire on Scotland’s northeastern coast just fifteen miles or so from where my parents and I lived for the first eight years of my life, and he spoke with the stern, abrupt accent of the region.

In his introduction to his English Pronouncing Dictionary, Jones makes no effort to conceal RP’s roots in the British aristocracy. From the book:

The pronunciation represented in this book is that which I believe to be most usually heard in everyday speech in the families of Southern English people who have been educated at the public schools1. This pronunciation is also used (sometimes with modifications) by those who do not come from the South of England but who have been educated at these schools. The pronunciation may also be heard, to an extent which is considerable though difficult to specify, from natives of the South of England who have not been educated at these schools. It is probably accurate to say that a majority of Londoners who have had a university education, use either this pronunciation or a pronunciation not differing greatly from it.2

  1. ‘Public school’ in the English sense, not in the American sense.
  2. The pronunciation is in the main that which I use myself. I have, however, put my pronunciation in a secondary place. in all cases where another form appears to me to be in more frequent use.

My mother wasn’t educated at “the public schools,” by which Jones meant Eton, Harrow, and England’s many other prestigious, privately owned boarding schools that have educated the children of the wealthy and the powerful for more than five hundred years. My mother didn’t even finish secondary school, yet she wanted to sound like the people who did go to the public schools very badly. She flexed her soft palate and primary articulator into strange, unnatural positions, contorting them to produce sounds that were foreign to the rest of her mouth. She practiced hard glottal stops and plosive epenthesis. It was all an act. She rehearsed constantly.

There were two competing accents in my house growing up: my father’s curling Scottish brogue, and my mother’s practiced, dignified English, two extremes at either end of the British linguistic spectrum. We lived in a two-up, two-down council house on a run-down housing estate in Aberdeen, a bleak, perpetually gray city on Scotland’s northeastern coast renowned for its many ornate Gothic Revival buildings and its offshore oil drilling.

The Eighties were a difficult time in Scottish nationalism. In the years following the election of Margaret Thatcher as Prime Minister and the failed Scottish Devolution Referendum of 1979 that would have established a Scottish Assembly, many Scots strongly disapproved of where Scotland was heading as a country. Words like “metropolitan” and “southeastern” became synonymous with English political power, and anti-English sentiment was far from uncommon. Bricks were sometimes tossed through the windows of homes belonging to the few English families living on neighboring estates, and the storefronts of the even fewer English-owned businesses in the area were occasionally defaced with graffiti that read GO HOME ENGLISH CUNTS or FREE SCOTLAND or ENGLISH GET OUT. We didn’t experience any direct Anglophobia ourselves, but my mother had always hated Scotland, despite being married to a Scotsman. She felt judged when we went shopping, as if the locals knew we were English before we even opened our mouths––“we,” as if I had any say in the matter––watching us silently out of the corner of narrowed eyes the way a suspicious cashier might watch a potential shoplifter. I often wondered how my father could listen to my mother’s invective about the Scottish and the ridiculousness of the way they spoke, seemingly without taking offense. It didn’t appear to bother him at all.

When I was six years old, I came home from preschool and excitedly asked to read a poem that we’d read in class to my parents. The poem was “To A Mouse” by Robert Burns, first published in Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect, a collection also known as the Kilmarnock Volume, in 1786.

The poem begins:

Wee, sleeket, cowran, tim’rous beastie,
O, what a panic’s in thy breastie!
Thou need na start awa sae hasty,
                    Wi’ bickerin brattle!
I wad be laith to rin an’ chase thee
                        Wi’ murd’ring pattle!

I won’t pretend to know at what age it’s appropriate to start teaching Burns to young children, but even in Scotland, preschool seems a little premature. Presumably the idea had been to introduce our malleable young minds to Scots, the Germanic language in which Burns’ original poem was written that’s sometimes referred to as Lowland Scot (to differentiate it from Scottish Gaelic), a language still spoken by more than a million people across Scotland. I vaguely recall my parents’ smiles and laughter as I read what little of the poem I could manage, but I later learned that my clumsy, exaggerated reading of Burns’ poem was a significant factor in my mother’s decision to pressure my father into leaving Scotland and moving to England. My earnest attempts to reproduce even the first few lines of the poem were enough to convince my mother than growing up with a Scottish accent would be almost as bad—if not worse—for me as growing up with a Scouse accent. Before I had even finished reading, she leaned close to my father and whispered in his ear: “We’re moving.”

And so began my elocution lessons.

For much of the next two years, my mother worked tirelessly to rid me of my Scottish accent. To her, Scottish wasn’t merely boorish. It was an affront. She corrected my pronunciation constantly, and would scold me when I lapsed. She insisted I enunciate every “t” instead of relying on glottal stops. She flattened my curling, rounded vowels, sometimes kindly, sometimes with an impatient tut. Any hint of a rolling, trilled “r” was forbidden. Her voice was clipped and measured, like that of a stern schoolmistress or a matron of the ward. I was never punished for my linguistic transgressions, but her evident disdain when I misspoke cut deeper than any tirade ever could. It wasn’t until many years later that I realized this campaign was not a new endeavor for my mother. Growing up, she had constantly discouraged me from enunciating words in an overly Scottish way. All that had changed was my awareness of her crusade. Had we the means to do so, I’ve no doubt my mother would have insisted upon formal elocution lessons, an ordeal from which I was spared by our modest household income, and so my mother’s gentle yet relentless corrections had to suffice. In time, my Scottish accent gradually faded, the voice that replaced it weak and strangely placeless.

While there is an abundance of research exploring multilingualism in early childhood language acquisition, few linguists have examined the effects of multiple accents on word recognition in young children in any real depth. Even fewer studies have been conducted into accents’ role in word recognition in children younger than eighteen months––the age at which children typically develop the ability to distinguish the pronunciation differences of identical words. Researchers at the University of Buffalo learned that babies from homes in which one language is spoken in multiple accents recognize and process words significantly differently than babies raised in single-accent households. Some research suggests that infants as young as six months old can learn not only how to reproduce the sounds they hear spoken in their home, but also the specific pronunciation in which those words were spoken. That same research suggests that accentual pronunciations are strongly developed during those first few critical months of early language acquisition, and that changing the association between a given word and its accented pronunciation can be extremely difficult. Even as infants, we practice our lines long before it is time for us to hit our cues.

In May of 1990, just a few days after her forty-fourth birthday, my mother got her wish and we moved south beyond Hadrian’s Wall to a small seaside town in the English Midlands. We settled in Lincolnshire, a flat, unremarkable county best known for its sausages, because we couldn’t afford to live in London or the Home Counties, where people spoke properly. Unfortunately, as my mother soon learned, Lincolnshire had linguistic problems of its own.

The Lincolnshire accent is distinct, but often difficult to place for people who aren’t familiar with the region. It has the sloping, almost disappointed-sounding vowels of neighboring Yorkshire’s accent, which lends it a laidback rural charm. It has a slightly rougher quality than the Yorkshire accent, but it’s close enough for most people to mistake the two, even though the Yorkshire accent is often much broader. We lived “in town,” as the locals say, and so I escaped many of the Lincolnshire dialect’s more unusual terms that were common in nearby villages like Louth, which my mother told me was mentioned in the Domesday Book, a weighty tome written in medieval Latin that William the Conqueror commissioned in 1086. Even so, I’d frequently hear words in the playground at school that made little sense to me. I soon learned that if someone was mardy (pronounced mah-deh), it meant they were in a bad mood. If someone was poorly (paw-leh), they weren’t feeling well. If someone was beeling (bee-lin), they were crying. I came to understand these words, but I never used them. They didn’t sound right in my voice.

My mother had as much contempt for Lincolnshire itself as she did for its accent. She seemed to begrudgingly acknowledge that it met many of my parents’ criteria––decent schools, reasonable housing prices, relatively low crime––but she resented its provinciality bitterly. She would frown and scowl as we shopped for clothes in our town’s lone department store, browsing through racks of cheap, gaudy blouses faster and faster before sighing and leaving hurriedly, as if we had stolen something. She would smile politely when distant acquaintances greeted us in passing as we shopped on the High Street, but they were coldly distant smiles, and she actively resisted befriending the neighbors and local shopkeepers who came to recognize us. She would often quietly curse if she failed to notice a familiar face approaching us without sufficient time to make a hasty retreat down a side street or escape into a nearby shop. My mother never failed to be polite or gracious in public, but during her darker moods behind closed doors, she would sneeringly dismiss our neighbors as “bumpkins,” mocking them for their parochial speech and their sentimentality about family and their narrow, insular worldview. She herself had chosen Lincolnshire as our new home, but for many years my mother carried herself with the quiet, wounded pride of someone who realizes too late that they have made a mistake.

People in Lincolnshire often call each other “duck” as a greeting and a term of endearment. When spoken with a traditional Lincolnshire accent, the “u” sound is typically pronounced at a slightly lower register so it rhymes with “rook.” Although Lincolnshire is renowned for this peculiar salutation, it’s common throughout much of the Midlands, even as far west as Staffordshire. Many people mistakenly believe that the Lincolnshire “duck” is derived from the waterfowl of the same name, because many people also mistakenly believe that ducks form pair-bonds for life, like swans. In actual fact, the term comes from the Saxon word ducas—which, in turn, comes from the 9th-century Old French word, duc—which was used by the peasantry as a term of respect when addressing nobles, from which the word and title of “duke” are derived. Even common pleasantries can have rich legacies.

In Lewis Gilbert’s 1983 film, Educating Rita, Julie Walters plays Rita, a Scouse hairdresser who yearns to explore the world of literary criticism and enrolls in an Open University course at a local college. Her tutor, Dr. Frank Bryant, played wonderfully by Michael Caine, is a cynical alcoholic poet who has abandoned his writing to work on his drinking. Frank doubts Rita’s academic abilities at first, but soon tasks her with reading and deconstructing a variety of works, from E.M. Forster (“I’ll tell you what Forster does, it gets on me tits” Rita says to Frank in one scene) to Chekhov (“As you know, I’m dead familiar with Chekhov now” she says later, pronouncing “familiar” as feh-mil-yeh). Walters is not from Liverpool; she comes from Edgbaston, a well-off suburb of Birmingham, but her Scouse accent in Educating Rita is excellent. Her occasional hard glottal stops betray her accent as the rehearsed performance it is—she pronounces too many of her “t’s” to be a real Scouser—but it’s one of the most convincing Scouse accents I’ve ever heard on-screen.

In one scene later in the film, Dr. Bryant invites Rita and her husband Denny to attend a dinner party at his home. Denny, a working-class lad who has never approved of Rita’s academic ambitions, refuses to go. Undeterred, Rita goes anyway, only to hesitate outside Dr. Bryant’s house. She takes cover behind a car parked in the driveway and observes Frank and his guests drinking wine and talking in the parlor. Intimidated, Rita flees to her local pub, where she finds Denny, their friends, and Rita’s parents singing along to a song known only as “The Pub Song,” which was composed and performed specifically for the film by the director’s son, Stephen Gilbert. “They were all singing, all of ‘em,” Rita tells Frank later. “Denny, looking happy. He’d just got a few days holiday from work. And me mother, not really on top form, something was worrying her. Probably me dad. They were never really love’s young dream. Our Sandra, in love. Her fiancé, about the same. And her mates, all of ‘em singin’… oh, some song they’d learned from the jukebox. And I thought, ‘Just what the frig am I trying to do? Why don’t I just pack it in, stay here, and join in with the singin’?’” When Frank asks Rita why she didn’t, Rita explains incredulously that she can’t possibly go back to her old life. “You think I can, don’t you? You think because you pass a pub doorway and hear ‘em all singin’, you think we’re all okay, that we’re surviving with the spirit intact. I did join in the singin’. But when I turned around, me mother had stopped singing, and she was cryin’. I said, ‘Why are you cryin’, mother?’ And she said, ‘There must be better songs to sing than this.’ And I thought, yeah, that’s what I’m trying to do, isn’t it? Sing a better song.”

There are two types of bastard in England. There’s the Sean Bean Bastard—the gruff-yet-lovable Yorkshiremen you’ll see and hear in The Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones who pronounce it bas-tid—and then there’s the clipped-yet-dignified Sean Pertwee Bastard, smart, well-educated public schoolboys who pronounce it bah-stud. Linguists call this phenomenon the “Trap-Bath Split,” an invisible border that divides England neatly in two based on how people pronounce words like “bath” and “glass.” The exact position of this imaginary demarcating line varies depending on who you ask, but most people agree that it bisects the country roughly from Bristol and Gloucester near the border of England and Wales in the southwest, to somewhere around The Wash, the large, roughly rectangular coastal estuary in East Anglia. Above this line—a region we’ll call Up North—most people favor what linguists call the “short” or “flat a” of the Sean Bean Bas-tid, the nobleman who even as a lord speaks like the common folk. Below the line—Down South—they favor the “broad” or “long a” of the Sean Pertwee Bah-stud, the prim and proper public schoolboy trained in RP. Far from a mere distinction between how certain words are pronounced, the Trap-Bath Split is fundamental to how the English perceive each other. A study published by researchers at the University of Leeds in 2005 found that participants from below the Split tended to believe that the long “a” of their accent was superior, claiming it was “correct,” “better English,” and “well-spoken.” Conversely, participants from above the Split described the long “a” of the Sean Pertwee Bah-stud to be “comical,” “snobbish,” “pompous,” and “for morons.”

The social connotations of one’s accent often depend upon its rhoticity, or whether the rhotic consonant “r” is pronounced in everyday speech. English can be both rhotic and non-rhotic, depending on the dialect. Scottish accents, for example, are rhotic due to their use of the rolling, trilled “r.” Scouse, on the other hand, is non-rhotic. Of course, that’s not to say that speakers of non-rhotic English never pronounce their “r’s.” There is the “linking r,” which is used when a word ending in “r” is followed by a word beginning with a vowel to produce a seamless, pleasing transition between the two, as there is in phrases like “father-in-law.” Then there is the “intrusive r,” which is pronounced even when it doesn’t technically exist, a patient diplomat of a consonant that works tirelessly at the borders between words to avoid crises of hiatus, or two consecutive vowel sounds; Margaret Thatcher––herself a renowned RP speaker––was famously nicknamed “Laura Norder” during her prime ministerial campaign of 1979 for her use of the intrusive “r” when pronouncing “law and order.” Few of her many other nicknames were as charitable.

When I was twenty-three, when I had no idea what rhoticity was or why it was important, I migrated south once again from Lincolnshire to London. During my first month in the capital, I lived with a constantly rotating cast of Australian backpackers and Polish exchange students and Asian tourists in a crowded hostel above a pub on Camden High Street. While the backpackers slept off the night before, all elbows and protruding feet, I chained my padlocked duffle bag to the bed frame, tiptoed out of the room, and went to work. I’d landed an entry-level sales gig at a financial publisher with a fancy office in Piccadilly Circus, a job that involved calling very important people at investment banks––people who wore expensive clothes and went to good schools and spoke properly––and asking them for money. My new colleagues were friendly enough, but their speech was clipped, their “a”s long, just like those of their clients. Sean Pertwee Bah-studs to the last.

So I learned to speak their language.

At night, in my tiny, damp bedsit above a pub in West Acton, I practiced, just as I had with my mother fifteen years earlier. Glasses became glah-ses. Baths became bah-ths. Grass became grah-ss. I was careful to avoid emphasizing too strongly; I wasn’t auditioning for the Royal Shakespeare Company. One of the byproducts of my mother’s linguistic interventions during the first years of my life was that my accent, such as it was, had taken on very few of the stronger qualities of the Lincolnshire dialect as a teenager, and so a short hop south of the Trap-Bath Split didn’t sound too jarring or obviously false. It wasn’t as uncomfortable as unlearning my Scottish accent had been, and it was much easier to turn on and off. I did feel uncomfortable assuming an alter ego for the purposes of settling into my new life in London. It felt like fraud, a calculated deception for personal gain. Which, I suppose, it was. Most of the time it felt vaguely sad, like buying a band T-shirt at the merch stand and wearing it at the same concert. There was no one to force me to change the way I spoke this time; no stern schoolmistress to tut when I enunciated incorrectly, no matron to warn me of the harrowing poverty that speaking poorly would invite. Only the words and my vague, nervous ambition.

A few weeks after I started speaking differently, I began making more sales at work. Not enough to earn me a decent commission or endear me to management, but just enough social currency to ingratiate me with some coworkers who had largely ignored me until I started signing more business. There was James, a burly but clearly well-bred young man from Buckinghamshire who wouldn’t have looked out of place in a rugby jersey in a class photograph from Eton, of whose practiced, oafish mannerisms I would be reminded many years later by Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Simon typically followed, a foppish cricketer type from Shropshire with a crooked Hugh Grant smile and the kind of sly cockiness that often accompanies a care-free life of wealth and privilege, but whose exaggerated, swaggering bravado betrayed him as the kind of schoolyard tough guy who talked tough but bruised at the slightest challenge. Then there was Lara, a tall, chain-smoking Essex girl turned part-time socialite with a particular fondness for cocaine who called her friends dah-ling and described things as fabulous. One day, facing the prospect of missing our team sales target yet again, we decided to attempt the Three-Pint Challenge at The Comedy, a pub just around the corner from the Harold Pinter Theatre on Oxendon Street, in which we had to drink at least three pints of Spitfire Kentish Ale within our lunch hour before returning to hit the phones with renewed vigor and a little Dutch courage. I was almost done with my third pint when I cracked a joke about crushing the glass—my glass with its short, flat, ignorant “a”—with my bare hands.

My joke didn’t make them laugh, but the way I said “glass” did.

For just a fleeting moment, my disguise had slipped. My new colleagues had seen––or rather, heard––the real me. Hours upon hours of practice undone in a moment of mild inebriation, a careless mistake that revealed me as the parochial phony I was. Many of my memories of my short-lived career in financial publishing have faded, but I’ll never forget that laughter.

Archibald Alexander Leach was born in 1904 in Horfield, a working-class suburb north of Bristol in southwestern England . At the turn of the 20th century, Horfield was known primarily for its coal mines and for being the home of the W.D. & H.O. Wills company, the first British tobacco manufacturer to mass-produce cigarettes.

Archie’s father, Elias, worked as a garment presser in a local clothing factory. His mother, Elsie, was a seamstress. Young Archie’s home life was turbulent. Elias was a heavy drinker and the family’s financial means were limited. When Archie was just nine years old, he returned home from school to learn that his mother had departed on a “long holiday” to an unnamed seaside resort. In actual fact, Archie’s father had committed Elsie to Glenside, a psychiatric hospital built in 1861 that had once been the Bristol Lunatic Asylum. Elsie had struggled with a profound depression for many years following the sudden death of Archie’s younger brother, John, who died of tuberculous meningitis just one day before his first birthday, and Elias had little patience for his wife’s lasting grief.

To escape the difficulty of his home life, Archie found refuge in the performances at the Bristol Hippodrome. Archie had enjoyed the pantomimes he attended with his father as a young boy, and later found work as a lighting assistant for magician David Devant when Archie was just thirteen. Archie spent most nights loitering backstage at the Bristol Empire, and later befriended members of the Bob Pender Stage Troupe, a traveling group of mimes, jugglers, and acrobats. Archie soon joined the troupe and learned the art of stilt-walking, touring with the group across southern England and, later, continental Europe.

In 1920, when Archie was sixteen, the troupe traveled to the United States aboard the RMS Olympic, an ocean liner identical in design to the RMS Titanic that had also served as a troopship nicknamed “Old Reliable” during World War I. Upon landing in New York City, the Bob Pender Troupe took to the stage of the New York Hippodrome, which was at that time the largest theater in the world, where they performed twice-daily shows six days a week for nine months. After the conclusion of the tour, Archie and several other members of the troupe decided to remain in the United States while the rest returned home to Britain. Archie began touring across America as part of a vaudeville act, and later formed his own troupe after being hired by legendary theater producer and playwright, Jean Dalrymple, after she saw him performing on stilts on the Coney Island boardwalk. Archie spent the next several years navigating a rocky stage career before signing a five-year contract with B.P. Schulberg, the co-founder and general manager of Paramount Pictures, in 1931. One of Schulberg’s few stipulations was that Archie find a more appropriate name for the silver screen; a name evocative of the suave yet stoic masculinity of stars like Clark Gable and Gary Cooper.

And so Archie Leach became Cary Grant.

The Bristol accent shares many qualities common to other accents across England’s West Country, the southwestern region that extends from Somerset and Dorset southwest through Devon and Cornwall, also known by the collective name of West Country English. A strongly rhotic accent, its vowels are long; words such as “like” and “life” slope down sharply before rising into “loike” and “loife” in much the same way as they do in Irish accents in and around Dublin. In many film and television productions, West Country English is represented by an exaggerated, location-agnostic accent known as “Mummerset,” a portmanteau of “mummer,” a 15th-century name for pantomime actors and folk performers, and Somerset, a quaint, rustic county separated from southern Wales by the Bristol Channel. Mummerset is a theatrical tradition dating back to the 17th century; in Shakespeare’s King Lear, Edgar speaks in the Mummerset accent shortly before fighting and killing Oswald in Act IV.

During his earlier years in the United States, Grant was frequently mistaken as Australian due to the peculiarities of his accent, earning him the nicknames “Boomerang” and “Kangaroo.” Grant’s Bristol accent had taken on some of the qualities of the Cockney dialect of East London during his time performing in London’s theaters, and the unusual blend of West Country English, Cockney, and theatrical stage English confused most Americans. Grant worked hard to refine his accent for many years as he established a name for himself as a performer, liberally borrowing some of RP’s qualities to affect a gentlemanly air of elegance and sophistication. These painstaking efforts eventually led to Grant’s distinctive manner of speaking, which would later become one of the best examples of the Mid-Atlantic American accent.

Although it shares its name with the mid-Atlantic region of the United States that extends down the East Coast from New York to Virginia, the Mid-Atlantic accent is not specific to any particular state or the region as a whole. Like RP, Mid-Atlantic American is a social accent. Many linguistic historians trace the origins of Mid-Atlantic American English to an elocution tutor named Edith Skinner who taught at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh and The Juilliard School in New York City in the 1930s and ‘40s. In 1942, Skinner published Speak with Distinction, a book that served as a holy text for a generation of hopeful thespians chasing acting careers on Broadway. But while Speak with Distinction widely popularized the accent, Skinner’s treatise on “good speech” was not the origin of Mid-Atlantic American. It was, in fact, Skinner’s mentor, an Australian phonetician named William Tilly, who first formally developed the accent while teaching at Columbia University between 1918 and 1935. Tilly was a firm believer in the idea that the English-speaking cultural and political elites of the world should speak a single, immediately recognizable dialect that properly signified their wealth and status. At that time, the British aristocracy still had considerable influence in American high society, and Tilly was convinced that the rich and powerful should speak an American accent with the refinement and social grace of RP. To that end, Tilly blended elements of RP with aspects of standard American English to create what later became Mid-Atlantic American. Skinner documented many of these phonetic principles and oral exercises for Speak with Distinction, and her considerable renown as an elocutionist quickly propelled Mid-Atlantic American to its preferred status as the accent of the upper classes and the performing arts. Actors spoke it delivering dramatic monologues on stage and screen. Newsreel announcers spoke it when relaying feats of American heroism in the battles against encroaching Axis forces in Algeria and Salerno and Normandy. Socialites and heiresses spoke it swapping gossip over gin and Vermouth on the Upper West Side.

However, while Mid-Atlantic American had become widespread among the glitterati throughout the 1930s and early 1940s, it wouldn’t last. Mid-Atlantic American quickly fell out of fashion shortly after the end of World War II. A significant factor in its decline was the changing tastes and attitudes of Hollywood. Although some directors continued to glamorize aristocratic wealth in their pictures well into the late ‘40s and early 1950s, a new generation of filmmakers set out to tell stories of ordinary people, rather than their lords and betters––pictures with little concern for the drama of high society or need of the clipped, reserved accents of Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn.

When I was twenty-nine, I left London and migrated west across the Atlantic to the United States. I didn’t join a traveling troupe of acrobats or embark on a long sea voyage, but like Cary Grant arriving in New York City aboard the RMS Olympic, I soon found myself in a strange place in which mutual understanding was assumed but often hard-won.

A common complaint among non-native English speakers who emigrate to the United States is that, no matter how hard they try, no matter how long they practice forcing their primary articulators into uncomfortable positions, many Americans simply cannot understand them. On paper, their mastery of English grammar may be indistinguishable from that of a native speaker, but in person, even the simplest of interactions can become excruciatingly difficult. Like Cary Grant had been almost ninety years before me, I was frequently mistaken as Australian during my first months in America. More than just a mere annoyance or inconvenience, such moments were powerfully jarring. The fact that I so often struggled to be understood was made all the more humiliating by the fact of our shared language. People would ask me to repeat myself with awkward half-smiles, heads tilted ever so slightly as if attempting to perceive a sound beyond the register of human hearing. I, in turn, would often speak louder and louder as people frequently do when presented with language barriers, as if raw volume can somehow overpower the silent totality of misunderstanding between us and the rest of the world. We often talk about speech in the language of physical dimension––accents are thick or broad or dense––but to me such moments had a tangible, oppressive physicality I could feel like the barometric pressure of the air before a storm. Routine interactions soon became fraught with anxiety. Like an actor preparing for a role, I practiced my dialogue in supermarket checkout lines, at the drive-thru, at the DMV. I would often silently mouth the words I’d say when it was finally time for me to hit my cue. Sometimes my private rehearsals went well. More often than not, I would end up quite literally red-faced, hurriedly fleeing public spaces in which my foreignness had become a strange, uncomfortable spectacle.

My choice to adopt a more Americanized pattern of speech was not a conscious decision, at least initially. I did choose to substitute words that had proven particularly elusive to the American ear––words like “mate” and “aluminium” and “arse”––for their local counterparts on occasion. This was not an act of deliberate cultural assimilation, but one of exasperation. It was often faster and easier to adopt the vernacular of my new home, even if that meant sacrificing a tiny part of who I was every time I spoke. It also meant accepting the risk of ridicule. Most people expect immigrants to observe cultural norms, but adopting the mannerisms of speech of my new home felt crass. Saying words like “buddy” and “aluminum” and “ass” made me feel like an impostor, a phony still wearing the band T-shirt I bought at the gig in London.

Besides the very obvious fact of his being Scottish, one of the first things I remember learning about my father as a child was that he is ambidextrous. Naturally left-handed, my father was forced to learn how to write with the “correct” hand by his domineering mother, who feared the ridicule and suspicion she was convinced would accompany the discovery of my father’s left-handedness. Eventually, my father became so practiced at forcing his newly dominant hand to comply that he could write backwards almost as quickly as he could write normally. I later learned that, in the early days of their relationship, my father sent my mother long love letters while he was touring with the Royal Air Force band in exotic places like Borneo and Hong Kong and Singapore, lengthy, passionate missives written entirely backward that my mother had to hold up to a mirror to read. When I asked him about his mother’s decision to force him to write unnaturally, I was surprised by his nonchalance; he didn’t seem to bear her any ill will at all. Nor did he make the connection between his mother’s insistence on his writing with the correct hand and my mother’s insistence on my speaking with an English accent when I was a child. “I suppose it is quite similar,” was all he had to say.

In linguistics, the term “code-switching” is used to describe the phenomenon in which bilingual people “switch” from one language or dialect into another, depending on the social context. The term was coined by linguist Einar Haugen, a first-generation American born in Iowa to Norwegian immigrant parents, in 1954. However, while Haugen was the first to give the phenomenon a name, he was not the first to observe or consider it. Renowned sociologist, historian, and civil rights activist W. E .B. Du Bois wrote about code-switching in his groundbreaking collection of essays, The Souls of Black Folk, first published in 1903. From the book:

“It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his two-ness –– an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.”

Since Du Bois described code-switching as a fundamental aspect of the African-American experience, the meaning of the term has expanded to encompass not just language and dialect, but any means of expression that shifts and changes depending on cultural and social contexts. I am not Black, nor are my experiences even remotely comparable to those of people of color, but there is a familiarity to Du Bois’ observations that lies just out of reach, like the face of a B-movie actor that is both tantalizingly familiar but ultimately alien. I am an immigrant, but saying so feels more like appropriation than a declaration of a legitimate part of my identity as a foreigner occupying a foreign space. Over time, my accent has morphed and changed once again into something new; definitely not Mid-Atlantic English, but certainly not entirely British or entirely American. As linguists like to joke, nobody lives in the middle of the Atlantic. I traded my stiff upper lip for manifest destiny, the Butcher’s Apron for Old Glory, my “t”s for “d”s, a consonant sound that linguists call a voiced apico-alveolar tap. When my father and I speak on the phone, as we do every day, I speak as I did when I was a young man in Lincolnshire; my “a”s flatter––I drink from glasses, not glah-ses––my “t”s dropped almost entirely in favor of glottal stops, my speech a little more brusque and slightly faster than I tend to speak.

When I hang up, I become myself again.

For me, code-switching isn’t a matter of survival, but one of convenience, an immense privilege in itself. Yet the ease with which I shift between these two sides of myself is the same: instantaneous, effortless, almost entirely reflexive. Left hand, right hand, forwards, backwards. But it is also a reminder that those two sides of myself will always be separate, that I will never feel truly welcome in my adoptive home or the home I left behind. That the way I speak is nothing more than linguistic camouflage, a constant reminder that I chose to live in the middle of the Atlantic. I’ve come to think of my strange, displaced accent in much the same way that people sometimes grow fond of moles or freckles or birthmarks. But, unlike my code-switching, this is a matter of necessity; accepting the way I speak helped me forgive my late mother for forcing me to unlearn everything I knew about speech out of hatred and bitterness. It’s the only way I know to reconcile the resentment I feel for being denied a vital part of my Scottish heritage with the recognition that my mother did what she did out of love, even if she didn’t know how to say it.

In the scene in Educating Rita in which Rita explains to Dr. Bryant why she couldn’t attend his dinner party and just “be herself,” she finally reveals her working-class insecurities and the bitter envy she feels for the “proper” students she sees lounging around the university’s immaculate lawns. “What’s me, eh? Eh?” Rita asks Frank, frustrated. “Some stupid woman who gives us all a laugh because she thinks she can learn, because she thinks that one day she’ll be like the rest of ‘em, talking seriously, confidently, with knowledge, living a civilized life?”

All my mother ever wanted was to talk with serious people about serious things, like art and music and literature. She thought she could learn, but I think she knew, deep down, that losing her Liverpool accent wouldn’t be enough for her to escape who she really was; that she’d never talk confidently with knowledge or live a civilized life, not really. She read as much as she could, and pieced together her own education as best she could, but my mother never wanted to infiltrate the ivory towers of academia or spend her afternoons engaged in pretentious conversations about Chaucer or Yeats. Like Rita, my mother just wanted to be taken seriously. Mum made little effort to conceal her enmity for the Scots or her fellow Scousers, but her resistance to the idea of me developing a Scottish or Lincolnshire accent wasn’t motivated solely by prejudice. She was making the only investment in my future she could, a downpayment on the only kind of upward social mobility she had ever known—as classist and xenophobic as it was—the kind she knew I could never inherit otherwise. Mum might not have had much of an education, but she understood the politics of speech perfectly.

Today, many enterprising speech pathologists have made what’s known as “accent neutralization” a core part of their practice. Millions of people all over the world seek to rid themselves of their distinctive ways of speaking at so-called accent reduction clinics every year. At these facilities, people are taught to relearn everything they know about speech. They are encouraged to repeat familiar words in unfamiliar ways over and over and over again until their soft palates and primary articulators learn to adapt. Perhaps tellingly, such services are almost invariably presented in the language of business, the potential return on investment clearly articulated. Interview with ease. Give better presentations. Win more clients. It presumes a commerce of speech and understanding; the promise of advancement in exchange for the right sounds, the right words, the magic words invoked in just the right way to bewitch the ear and unlock the door.

Irrespective of motive or benefit, accent neutralization is, of course, a misnomer. Our words and the ways in which we say them are anything but neutral. It might be more accurate to call it accent gentrification; rich dialectical tapestries left to us by our ancestors subsumed by the dry, clipped tones of Mid-Atlantic American or the lofty, arrogant patois of RP, marginalized voices conquered and displaced by an insidious kind of linguistic colonization whose sole purpose is to make the foreign, the ethnic, the boorish, uncouth masses more acceptable—more tolerable—to the kind of people who were educated at the public schools, who live civilized lives, who talk about serious things with serious people.

Maybe one day we’ll find a better song to sing.


About the writer:
Originally from the United Kingdom, Dan Shewan now lives and writes in Rhode Island. His essays and narrative nonfiction have appeared in a wide range of publications, from national newspapers to small literary journals.

Image: Dark Chamber by Taha Heydari (1986- ). Acrylic on canvas. 76 x 86 inches. 2015. By free license.

Emblem: The Coat of Arms of the Liverpool City Council. By free license.

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