There’s a world of colours stretching way beyond our visual capacity...
Think about the auditory kaleidoscope of accents that have burst out of our language: each with its own shade of meaning, energy; and conflicting normality. People with extreme accents can barely understand each other: a virtual English Tower of Babel. Though it’s hard to see where God intervened like he did after Noah’s flood!
My family has an ear for accents. My grandfather Henry Higgins became famous for pinpointing people’s birthplaces - and places they had visited - by hearing them speak. And his tutelage helped many people rise above their roots.
His most-noted pupil had London’s high society at her feet. None of her fawning upper-class friends could imagine Eliza Doolittle as a rough-spoken Cockney flower seller at Covent Garden, but years later they learned of “My Fair Lady” in movies and musicals.
Henry’s skills have genetic links to me - Walter Higgins - so I organise tours so language devotees; who ignore slurs like “word nerds” or “phonetic fanatics;” may explore our rich diversity of accents…
Because Australians rarely open their mouths when speaking, their vowels are flat or nasal. Still drowsy after surgery, a patient once plaintively asked his Australian nurse: “Did I come here to die?” “No,” she replied: “you came here yesta-die!”
We’ve noted how New Zealanders conspire to swap vowel sounds around, but this hesn’t afficted us one luttle butt!
As we listen to how Indians, Pakistanis and Sri Lankans seem to hold their voices back in their throats, we’re surprised to hear speech that is neither harsh nor guttural, but which bounces along with a lyrical, almost musical, cadence.
We hear Soat Effrican English-speakers who are strongly influenced by the clipped vowels of Afrikaans, with its deep Dutch roots, and by hundreds of African tribal tongues.
A smorgasbord of accents across the British Isles includes:
The upper-cwass wisp;
Cockneys chirping in London’s East End;
The syncopated, poetic rhythm of the Welsh;
A wee Scawttish lussie with sooonds that will neverrrr feed awee, even afterrrr decades;
Yorkshire’s ‘tindancy’ to be terse, as if each word will be charged for! “Ooh Aye??”
And Midlands folk ‘ave han hendearing ‘abit of removing aitches from where they belong, and placing them in hinappropriate places!
Lurking in the strangled tones of Soomerrr-sat, in England’s West Country, is an accent that’s eagerly aped by all who wish to be taken seriously as pirates!
Closer to London we encounter Berkshire’s unspellable glottal stops, where hard sounds evaporate from the middle of sentences. For example, “I’ve got to go,” is something like “I’ve goh!-oo go!” Truly unspellable, but they understand each other.
Oscar Wide declared that Britons and Americans are separated by a common language; so our tours must include the colour that North America brings into the picture, though space permits only a few of its eighty-plus different accents.
In Noo Yawk City, we may hear Bronx residents complain if “da boids start choipin’ too oily in da mornin!” But a polite Bostonian may not have the ‘hat’ to complain if his cah pahking space is too fah away.
We’re well aware that Canadians aren’t happy ‘aboat’ being called Americans! Yet they also ensuRe that no “r” sound is eveR ignoRed!
Except in the South, where our tour ends. Thay-us is wayer we fahnd softer toans, and ayxtra sea-a-lables appearing in some words; which only ay-uds to the Say-owth’s charm. Ah’ve trayvelled through loats of small tay-owns down thay-er, enjawing the hawspitaility and poe-laht-ness of the mainy folks ah’ve may-ut in those leedle beedy tay-owns.
It’s all very familiar now, but surprises still come.
It was near Baton Rouge, Louisiana, when my fame suddenly confronted me.
Just as I was settling onto a stool at the soda fountain in a roadside café a telephone began ringing; and whoever it was, was asking for Walter Higgins!
My phonetic world rapidly embraced phone-etiquette, as a friendly café owner handed me his phone with an explanation that covered this week’s topic:
“It’s a caller fo’ y’all, Walt!”
Author’s note: A BBC radio game show “My Word,” featuring legendary wordsmiths Frank Muir and Dennis Norden ran for over thirty years. These two comic writers closed every program by dryly concocting the most convoluted stories or outrageous puns to explain quotes or proverbs, or titles of songs, books or movies.
For this attempt to emulate them, I’m happy to offer translations or apologies to any puzzled FW friends.
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