Life

How Losing Your Regional Accent Affects Your Identity

"There's a huge amount of pressure in the UK, and across the world to sound a particular way."
29 June 2020, 10:20am
Group of boys sat outside talking
Photo: Emily Bowler

There are three things English people do when they hear a very thick Welsh valleys accent: quote Gavin and Stacey at you, ask if you know the one other Welsh person they have ever met, or immediately jump into an exaggerated mockery of your lilting tones. Unlike our Celtic cousins in Ireland and Scotland, the Welsh accent rarely appears on “fittest accents” lists. Since I moved to Manchester eight years ago, it has always been something to laugh at – or, as when I first arrived as a fresher, an accent so strong nobody understands it and instead smiles, nods and laughs at whatever you say.

Moving to England didn’t just make me conscious of my accent (I’d never thought about it before, having grown up surrounded by Valleys sing-song voices) – but of my Welshness, too. Being here with a hyper-awareness of my heritage made me more proud than ever of the motherland; yet as time has gone on and my accent has jumped ship, my once very obvious Welsh identity now has to be explained to strangers rather than immediately recognised by my inflections.

Losing your accent is a phenomenon that anyone who moved away for uni and changed their pronunciation of Primark can tell you. Dr Hannah Leach, a lecturer in phonetics and phonology at the University of Newcastle, confirms that this is completely natural and, for some, an unavoidable change.

“Accommodating to the behaviour of others is a natural instinct, and accommodating to other people's language is just one aspect of this. Some people are more predisposed to this than others, but it's hard to resist,” Leach explains. “There's a huge amount of pressure in the UK, and across the world to sound a particular way, and if your accent is particularly 'strong' – even more so if it's an accent that is widely stigmatised and stereotyped – you might feel like it sticks out too much, and want to alter it. If you've ever heard someone speaking to their parents or grandparents on the phone, quite often their most natural or local accent comes out.”

From experience, I know that Leach’s final sentiment is as undeniable as the sea being wet. After a trip home or even a phone call with my mam, I can hear my original inflections returning to my tongue like the tide. Similarly Eden – a 26-year-old a Scottish woman with an all Glaswegian family, born and raised in the North West of England – has a Glasgow accent at home or on the phone to relatives, but an English accent for the rest of the world.

Although the concept of having two distinct accents is alien to me and a lot of others, Dr Leach is keen to comment that, again, this is a totally normal occurrence. “Linguists do a lot of research into the broad features of different accents, but also how individual speakers might use and avoid particular features depending on a huge array of social factors,” Leach explains. “The age, class, ethnicity, gender identity and sexuality of the speaker and listener all come in to play, as do the environment and speaking style”.

She highlights the difference between speaking at a job interview versus speaking to your mates at the pub, or delivering a talk to a large group of people versus gossiping with a friend: “Even the topic of conversation can have an affect on the accent features a person can use.”

I can see this reflected in my actions over the last few years. On camera, my Welsh accent spills out and stands in between me and the screen. To my friends in Manchester, my accent waves in and out depending on time since travelling home, the topic at hand and my levels of intoxication.

Although I lost my accent – and, in part, my identity – accidentally, others make the choice purposefully in order to assimilate with their peers in new cities or, in some cases, to be taken more seriously in the world of work. Marion, a 30-year-old German residing in London, says she felt “embarrassed” and that people would “judge her” for having an accent, so she changed it.

“Everyone feels they can just comment on how you speak and it's really annoying to always be asked where you're from even if it's not meant in a malicious way. It's very othering and always reminds me that I don't belong,” Marion laments. Yet, because she retains her multilingual abilities and feels she will “always seem foreign” in England, Marion says her identity isn’t affected by her lack of German accent.

Beth, a 23-year-old from Telford says she went through university being “the Brummy girl” – even though she isn’t from Birmingham, just nearby – and hated it so much that she specifically swapped out her pronunciations to match the southern accents of her University of Surrey peers. Her voice change was encouraged by friends, who called the Black Country accent “the least attractive accent possible”, and one lecturer suggested she “tone down” her accent “to be more fitting for jobs”.

Now, Beth embraces being labelled a Brummy babe. “I used to find it frustrating that my accent invited so many questions, but I'm owning it now,” she enthuses. “I'm really proud of my accent as it represents where I come from and I'm also proud to be a professional person working in the media with a Black Country accent – there aren't many of us! I wish I hadn't tried to fit in or dilute it at all now.”

I find solidarity with all the other souls with lost accents, but I still long for a taxi driver or beer garden attendee to hear my voice and ask me to do my best Nessa impression. I want to be provided the springboard to talk about how my Nanny is from Barry, actually, and my brother lives there now and, funnily enough, Barry is home to what is likely the world’s last ever Hyper Value.

What I have learned instead, though, is to not wait for my vocal chords to be the impetus for these conversations, but to share my pride off my own back – with obnoxious, self indulgent tweets, sesh conversations about Welsh assimilation at 2AM, and VICE articles that make me trench into the depths of my identity.

@GINATONIC

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