Accents go much deeper than the sound of words by Celia Klassen Time for Tea

While in England two weeks ago, I visited Birmingham and attended a wedding. There were people from southern England, Scotland – both north and south, Switzerland where they speak French, and Birmingham is northern England. Then having lived in Idaho for the past 10 years I’ve come to pick up on American words and phrases as well.
Sitting there surrounded by all sorts of accents I began to wonder about them. When taking my final English exam, one of the poems we had to study was called “Search for my tongue” by Sujata Bhatt. It was the only poem I found remotely interesting and I have thought back on it many times as I noticed my own accent changing and endured many embarrassing slip ups where I said the wrong thing for the continent I was on, or mixed the two so that it didn’t make any sense at all.
To me, accents go much deeper than the sound of the words. I would include phrases in the category as well. I was horrified on my first visit when a guy I had barely met said he liked my thongs. I didn’t understand how he might be able to see my underwear or why I would have multiple on. He knew perfectly well that would be my reaction and had a good laugh.
While discussing a couple with my coworkers, I said “oh she definitely wears the trousers”. Everybody laughed so I began to explain that the expression meant she was the boss in the relationship. Turns out, you have that phrase too, but of course you say “she wears the pants”. I had already become familiar with trading “trousers” for “pants”, but my brain had not made that connection with the phrase.
It is fascinating how the brain remembers things in sections like that. The general language and the expressions or phrases seem to be different.
The poem I referenced begins “You ask me what I mean by saying I have lost my tongue. I ask you, what would you do if you had two tongues in your mouth and lost the first one, the mother tongue, and could not really know the other, the foreign tongue”.
I did not even have to learn a new language when moving here like so many of the Hispanics around here did, or going further back like the many Russian and German and British immigrants that formed the basis of our society today. An interesting note is that in the older newspapers I have been studying, the text is far more likely to contain English phrases I used “back home” than they are now. I found a reference to a “chap” for example, and a “lad”. And theater was spelt the English way; “theatre”.
Accents emerge as a result of historical migrations, cultural exchanges, and linguistic influences. As languages spread across continents through conquest, trade, or colonization, they collided with local tongues, leading to a fusion of sounds that created new accents. This is why, even within a single language, a myriad of accents can exist, each carrying a unique story.
Accents are not just about linguistic diversity; they also play a significant role in shaping personal and group identities. A person’s accent can reveal their background, upbringing, and even their social class. Someone’s accent can indicate whether they grew up in a cosmopolitan city, a rural village, or a multicultural neighborhood. Accents can also evoke strong emotions and attitudes, from admiration to prejudice, often influencing how we perceive intelligence and trustworthiness.
In some cases, accents can serve as cultural badges, creating a sense of belonging and unity among speakers. People who share a common accent often feel a deeper connection to one another. I had this feeling when I got on the plane to return to America. It was a direct flight from London to Salt Lake City. As I sat down, the Salt Lake City based crew spoke in American accents as did many people around me, but those beginning their journey had accents from all over the UK, even some very strong Irish ones.
I texted my husband: “I’m surrounded by American accents and English accents, it’s great! That’s my people”. What I meant was the mixture made me feel at home. I have begun to feel foreign in both England and America just as the poem says.
Although there was a certain amount of adjustment as I learned the way things are said around here, and I still make mistakes sometimes, I have often received the comment that my accent isn’t very strong. The reason for this is I grew up in London; a huge multi-cultural metropolis. My friends included three girls from different parts of India, to whom we were their teachers of the English language, another friend lived in a low income area with more of a cockney accent, another had a French mother and Portuguese father, another from Jamacia, and some whose parents were from Africa.
It has been said that “London playground English” is an accent of its own. The blend of cultures and races and friendships is something I miss. A row of stores near where I grew up is likely to have an Indian food restaurant, a store selling Polish groceries, a British bank, a store selling African traditional clothes and an English grocery store.
In essence, accents are a testament to the beauty and complexity of human expression. They are living reminders of the countless journeys languages have taken, evolving and adapting as they traverse cultures and generations. Accents are not just about how we speak; they encapsulate our history, and the ever-evolving symphony of human interaction.

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