The British Obsession With Accent

In a café, after a West End matinée.  My friend has just introduced me to an acquaintance of hers, then left us alone to go and order tea.  “So what did you think of the show?” he asks.

I reply, “Well, I enjoyed the number with –”

“Where are you from?”

I am interrupted mid-sentence.  I say nothing, and glare.

“Where are you from?” Almost an order.

“It’s a long story,” I say, coldly.

You would think he would take the hint and back off.

“What do you do?” His tone becomes insistent, almost frantic.  Like a man lost at sea, desperate to clutch at something, or he will drown.

I can see he will not even pretend to be interested in what I have to say about the show.  “I’m a translator,” I say.

A glimmer of hope flashes across his face.  “Which languages?”

I sigh with as loud a pectoral rasp as I can produce.  “Italian, French and Russian – into English.”

His face relaxes.   His index finger taps on a list in the air.  “Ah, so you’re… (sotto voce) Italian… French… Russian.”

Thanks be!  He is now safely clinging to a bouy.  Because here, until you are able to pigeon-hole someone, you are drifting in dangerous waters.

Like so many others, this man has made the easy assumption that, just because I speak these languages, then I must automatically come from those countries.  Actually, by blood, I am not Italian, French or Russian.  But I did not want to play on the man’s vulnerability, and confuse him further.  What I wanted to tell him, was that I am mostly English, with an authentic English temper spiked with inborn sarcasm and – since I was not brought up in England and trained to keep it in check – if provoked, it flies out, unrestrained, in its purest, most unadulterated, caustic form.  The kind that would make John Donne, Sir Francis Bacon and many characters played by Maggie Smith cheer.

However, one thing I was taught, is that sarcasm is like fencing.  You do not engage with someone who cannot keep up with you…

We know from George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion that, in England, what places you, gives you your social position, and puts you into the correct trial dock, is your accent.  Even now, your accent is what influences people’s behaviour towards you.  Is it regional? Is it cut glass? Or – worst of all – is it slightly foreign?

It seems the British are incapable of having a conversation until they have placed your accent.  Until they can do so, panic – or disapproval – reigns supreme.  It is as though what you are saying cannot be heard or mentally processed until the exact origin of the speaker is determined.  As though they cannot decide whether to believe you or not until they know where you come from.  You can parry as much as you like; they will not stop until they have gained access to your very D.N.A…

Many years ago, I was at a luncheon in a Cambridge College.  I was having a seemingly anodyne conversation with one of the Fellows about the acoustics in an opera house.  I remarked that the sound naturally rose, so the best way to judge a singer’s voice, was to sit in the gods.

“Do you have scientific proof for that?” asked the Fellow.

“No.  I’m not a scientist.  Next time you’re at the opera, sit in the gods, and judge for yourself.”

“You weren’t born in this country, were you?”

There it was, slam bang below the belt.  As though the fact I might not have been born in this country suddenly invalidated my opinion about music.

“How is that relevant to the conversation we were just having?” I asked.

“Well, I’m making it relevant because it’s interesting.”

“Well, it’s not interesting for me.”

Eventually, he apologised.

Interesting? Then go the British Library and pore over a manuscript.  That would be far more interesting. 

Another thing which puzzles me.  What importance can the place of your birth possibly have, except for governments in deciding whether or not to grant you citizenship? What difference does it make where I was born? The place of birth does not have any bearing on my blood heritage.  If I had been born on a boat in the midst of an ocean, would that make me a fish? Personally, I was born in one country but my parents came from other parts of the world. So which is my country? I am half-English, I love England and feel English – until someone rudely interrupts me mid-sentence to ask where I am from.  There are times when I truly wish some of the British advocacy for political correctness, politeness and inclusiveness would be extended to me.

A few weeks ago, once again, I was bulldozered by a lady in the shop, while I was making an observation about the weather.  She thought herself very perceptive in declaring me French.  I enlightened her by saying that, although I had received a French education, and had lived in France for six years, I was not, in fact, French.  I normally wait what I consider a polite amount of time before I ask strangers where they come from and, even then, I prefer to wait until the conversation touches upon the subject of languages, travel or geography before I enquire.  This time, I made an exception.  “Oh, I’m English!” she retorted with a noticeable expression of outrage.  “It’s an upper-class English accent.  Queen’s English.  Now if you were English, you would know I sound aristocratic.”

She brought back to mind Saint Bonaventure’s quotation, “Exemplum de simia, quae, quando plus ascendit, plus apparent posteriora eius” or Sir Francis Bacon’s translation thereof, “He doth like the ape, that the higher he clymbes the more he shows his ars.”

I nearly replied that it was rotten luck her aristocratic family had clearly been too impoverished to purchase her a copy of Debrett’s Etiquette and Modern Manners but, as I said, one thing I was taught, is that sarcasm is like fencing…

I find it rather distressing, that given our national pride in subtlety, most people do not seem to take a subtle hint that you are trying to evade the question.  Try and change the subject, and suddenly, they all turn into prosecutors.

Where are you from?

Well, it’s a long story…

Well, I shan’t bore you…

Oh, I don’t really like to talk about it…

For all your attempts gently to elude them, they push ahead.  However, try telling them to “mind their business”, and you are the one perceived as rude.

I have been asked if I am French, Dutch, Irish, German, Swedish, Spanish or Irish.  The most frequent choice, though, is probably South African – even though I have never ever been to South Africa.

Yes, I find it tedious to keep trying to explain to people where I come from, since I am like the pattern on Harlequin’s dress, and so unable to give a straightforward answer.  I have the non-descript accent of one who was exposed to several languages from birth.  However, I am not averse to satisfying their curiosity, when they phrase the questions with  some delicacy, as genuine, enthusiastic interest, and do not cross-examine me as though sitting in judgement of me.

A couple of months ago, I was at a drinks do with a friend.  We struck up a conversation with a man.  He happened to be a barrister.  We spoke for several minutes – about the Royal Opera House production of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, about the music of Hildegard of Bingen, then about travelling and local customs.  Then he cocked his head and smiled.  “May I assume you’re not from London..?” he said, his tone politely unobtrusive, suggesting his curiosity was prompted by my enjoyable contribution to our earlier conversation, rather than suspicion on his part.

I was happy to tell him my whole story.

And if you really want to hear my accent, listen to this podcast:

Scribe  Doll

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30 Responses to The British Obsession With Accent

  1. Pingback: Brexit – The Hairline Fracture* | Scribe Doll's Musings

  2. Rob Lightfoot says:

    And you have a lovely accent, by the way. Its difficulty in being placed makes it intriguing, familiar and exotic all at once.

  3. Rob Lightfoot says:

    This piece honestly caused me to chuckle out loud rather loudly (it was your wonderful insertion of Francis Bacon’s translation, by the way!) Very well put, and well-placed. Thank you, Katia.

  4. Mugren Ohaly says:

    I can easily relate to this. I’m half Saudi, which means I’m a fairer skinned than most natives. Hence, I’m always met with disbelief whenever I tell someone that I’m from Saudi Arabia. My accent sometimes convinces those who ask, and sometimes it causes their disbelief to grow.

  5. seascapesaus says:

    It is awful that you have had such negative experiences in response to your beautiful speaking voice! For me, it is a bit of an intellectual puzzle putting together or pulling apart the nuances of accents. The enigmatic is always tantalising. Better just to listen! Philippa

  6. I’ve listened now and you speak beautifully. I don’t think yours is the kind of accent which I find distracting. My accent, which I occasionally modify, is not particularly regional as my parents discouraged me from picking up the local accent. Once in my home town, I was asked, “What brings you here?” and the person was surprised by my reply, “It’s where I come from”! Sue

  7. Sue Cumisky says:

    It happens if you are Welsh living in England and to the English when in Wales, though it can be far more belligerant in the Celtic fringe with good reasons. We have long memories. Most of us ask out of interest, the music of the accent catches our ears and takes us into the wide world. I once upset a relative who happens to be black by starting a conversation about sport. He felt insulted and I felt awful, but he did not know that sport is one of my obsessions. I forget others do not share it. Oh dear rambling on – sorry. Yet another failing – rambling and saying sorry!

  8. jarvis1000 says:

    Loved every minute of the rant! It made me laugh! Being that my wife is a kiwi and I am american, the subject of accent is a common one in my house!

  9. I have always loved meeting and learning from people of different areas and countries. Here in the States asking where someone is from tends to be a way to see if there could be a connection somewhere between the speakers. Last summer I went to visit my mother in Illinois. My North Dakota accent invariably causes people to think I’m either from Canada or Minnesota (no one ever thinks of ND–we are the invisible State!). So, folks ask where I’m from and then try to trace connections. It can be quite funny and I can’t imagine anyone looking down on me because of our differences! I hope to travel to England someday, but if the English are that hard on each other, how bad are they on the rest of the world?

    Thank you for your writing. I find it refreshing!

    • scribedoll says:

      I think the English will just place your accent as “American” and that will be entirely fine. It’s when they can’t quite place it, that I find they won’t let go. Have no fear of coming here – and I hope that when you do, you’ll have a great time :–)

  10. I shall come back and listen later, when the radio is not on! Personally, I am fascinated by accents and a particularly unusual one tends to distract me from the subject-matter. Part of my brain is trying to place it.
    A story which might amuse you is of a British-born person living in a different English-speaking country, being asked, “Did you learn English as a little girl?” Sue

  11. Great take on the subject.
    The question, ‘Where are you from?’ is loaded.
    Have you read Doris Lessing’s ‘In Pursuit of the English?’

    • scribedoll says:

      Exactly! I feel very strongly that it really, really should not matter where we come from! After all, we are all from Planet Earth. I don’t mind being asked, if it’s politely but not when the tone is clearly judgemental.

  12. Liz Stanford says:

    Well said, Katia!
    I don’t know if you have come across a new American series called “Smash”. It’s about a fictitious director/ producer putting together a musical on Broadway. Episode 2 has a lovely scene in a bar between actors Jack Davenport and Raza Jaffrey which you’d appreciate!!

  13. Anna says:

    I listened to the podcast about crows and heard your voice for the first time. Katia, you sound beautifully! You have such an agreeable, enchanting tone! Being a non-native speaker of English, I cannot apparantly judge whether you have an accent or not. But it does not matter at all, as long as your voice and your writing skills and your magnificent command of the language are above all praise!

  14. KiM says:

    “…sarcasm is like fencing. You do not engage with someone who cannot keep up with you…”

    That’s such a wonderful phrase. May I quote you on it?

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