Due to my current endeavours to push my English grades up a notch (and a conveniently timed “All Stock Must Go” sale at the Blackwell’s down the road) Dad went out recently and returned with practically half a bookshop, all for me. A lot of it was stuff I should probably have owned already, being an English student – Poe, Stoker, Dostoevsky, Wilde, Huxley, etc… – but one book in particular caught my eye. It was “Mother Tongue” by Bill Bryson, an in-depth look at the English language and it’s origins. Being both a fan of Bill Bryson and of linguistics, I pounced on it immediately.
That’s not what this post is about, although I suggest you read the book yourself anyway – it’s a good read, especially if you happen to be doing an English Language A level. However, there was a chapter on accents – British ones in particular – that got me thinking.
I realised I’m not entirely sure what my accent is. I was born in St Helens (in Merseyside) and have lived in Sheffield since the age of two, so I’ve always lived in the North. My parents, however, are both from the South; Mum from the West Country (oo-arr) and Dad from Chorleywood – a little place outside London where, as far as I can gather, Dad spent his childhood living the equivalent of an Enid Blyton novel with excursions and lemon drizzle cake and lashings of ginger beer (but without the smugglers, the mysteries, or indeed any of the interesting bits). The result, then, is that I’ve ended up with something of a mongrel accent (I’ve dubbed it the “Snorthern” accent). If I had to go with a name that actually exists, I’d describe it as “Home Counties”, but even then it doesn’t quite fit the mould sometimes – I say sometimes, because it tends to change.
I’m not one hundred percent certain how to explain this, but I’ll try – my accent has a rather embarrassing habit of changing to mirror whoever I’m talking to. This is not a conscious decision, it’s just one of the many things my brain does out of the blue to make social situations awkward (something it is very, very good at). Those of you who’ve been on a foreign exchange or a package holiday to somewhere exotic will know what I mean (I hope) – there comes a point when you find yourself speaking to your exchange student / foreign tour guide in English, but having adopted a version of their accent. I have no idea why this is, but I know it’s not just me this happens to – I caught my brother doing it when his German exchange student came to stay.
It’s a habit I pick up from my Mum, I think – she’s our family’s resident accent chameleon. When her immediate friends from Sheffield come to visit, she slips unknowingly deeper and deeper into a Yorkshire accent. When we visit Dad’s family, she suddenly gets rather stereotypically southern and oh darling, isn’t that just /lovely/. When we head down to Exeter to see her side of the family, you can actually pinpoint the bit of the journey when she slips into full-on farmer (just past the Wellington Monument) – it’s always worth the inevitable traumas of Fox family holidays just to hear her say “a’right my loverrr” with perfect sincerity.
There’s are parts of it that completely baffle me, though, and they’re things that both Mum and I do. One is that I tend to get posher when I’m cross – get me really irate and within twenty minutes I’ll end up sounding like the bastard child of Darcy Bussell and Anne Widdecombe (a combination that should never, ever exist). Another is that I automatically get more Yorkshire when talking to children, something I’ve only discovered in recent months thanks to a sudden boom in babysitting opportunities. The only possible explanation I can find for this is the fact that my Grandma on my mother’s side is a very strong, no-nonsense Yorkshire woman, born and bred in the deepest depths of Doncaster (oh, the alliteration!). Despite having never lived there, Mum tends to emulate that quite often (especially if I’m in trouble) and – unfortunately – I tend to emulate Mum on a regular basis.
I’m drifting off on a tangent now, but it is a fact pointed out to me by friends and family members with alarming regularity that I am, slowly but surely, becoming my mother. [Only in appearances, that is– with the exception of the irritating accent habits, I’m very much my Dad’s daughter in personality: endearingly dorky and excitable (at least, I hope it’s endearing), rather sarcastic, a tiny bit cheesy, and constantly fretting about something or other.] If I had a pound for every time someone cooed “Ooh, don’t y’look like your mother!” or some other variation, then I wouldn’t need to go through with my long-term plan to become the next JK Rowling – I could set up shop now, before I even hit legal adulthood. There have been moments (yes, unfortunately plural) when, upon seeing a picture of Mum in her childhood or early teens, I’ve commented something along the lines of “I don’t remember having that taken!”.
It’s not only me it’s happening to – Mum was rather alarmed to realise that she’s slowly but surely becoming Grandma. A couple of years ago she and Dad held a fancy dress party for their joint 45th birthday, making it their 90th, and instructed all of their friends to come dressed as OAPs. The party itself walked the thin line between hilarious and traumatic, as Mum and Dad’s parties often do – I could do an entire blog post on the psychological damage they’ve caused me (their “Wrong Trousers” party, when Tim turned up in sheer tights and heels, is still branded onto my memory), mostly due to the fact that their friends are every bit as bonkers as they are… and, in a few cases, more so. Their 90th birthday party included, but was not limited to:
- One couple, who both came as little old ladies
- Another couple who not only walked all the way to our house in their pyjamas, but attached a wing-mirror to the bottom of the husband’s walking cane “for looking up the nurses’ skirts”
- One of their friends discovering our back-yard trampoline in a moment of slightly tipsy delight, and spending a good twenty minutes bouncing and giggling herself breathless.
However, the best moment for me came after the party with a sense of grim satisfaction – Mum took a photo of herself dressed up as a little old lady, to which Grandma immediately said: “I don’t remember this…” So, this leaves us with a kind of chain reaction. I’m becoming Mum, and Mum’s becoming Grandma… which means that by extension, so am I. We do actually have a photo from two years ago of four generations of Mum’s side of the family – GG (Great Gran who passed away last year), Grandma, Mum, and me – and it does look rather like a timeline of the same woman at different stages.
Still, could be worse.
Then again, not much.