Oxford Part 2: The Queen’s English, café people watching, and moving to Paris

Working in the Dictionaries department at OUP has allowed me to release my inner language geek, and this, as well as wandering around Oxford, has made me think about how interesting accents are. Living in Glasgow, I have become used to hearing a wide variety of accents, but my impression of Oxford so far is that the vast majority of people have English accents, so that anyone who speaks with a different accent immediately stands out. People have been perplexed by my accent, which I am told is hard to place, given that it is a mixture of Northern Irish and Scottish. I am used to people guessing that I come from either Northern Ireland or Scotland, but in Oxford, most people have no idea where my accent comes from, to the extent that I have been informed by a number of people that I don’t have an accent. My favourite reaction to mentioning that I live in Glasgow so far has been an accusatory:

“But you don’t sound like Nicola Sturgeon!”

Having studied linguistics, I am perhaps more aware than most that everyone speaks with an accent. A person’s accent simply means the way they speak, therefore anyone with the ability to speak has an accent. Nonetheless, I have often heard people refer to someone who “doesn’t have an accent”, in some cases, meaning someone like me, whose accent is “soft” and hard to place or describe, and in other cases, referring to Received Pronunciation or “The Queen’s English”, because many consider this accent socially superior, and therefore the norm of British accents. Being in Oxford made me think about this because this accent is also sometimes called “Oxford English”, as, traditionally, it was the accent of most people at Oxford University.

 

A few of the many pictures I have taken on my wanderings in Oxford in the sunshine. It’s very pretty.

While there is nothing “better” about one accent than another, there are stigmas and stereotypes surrounding most, if not all accents, some positive, and some negative. Received Pronunciation is considered posh, even snobbish by some, while others see it as a mark of prestige, or even superiority. In most cases, however, people are aware that these are stereotypes. For me, a more serious issue with prejudice in relation to accents is native English speakers talking to people whose accents are not British, American, or Canadian etc. as if they are stupid. I have encountered this before, but the other day I overheard a particularly infuriating instance of it.

I was in a café, and had been there a while because I was totally absorbed in my book. I only re-emerged from the world of Zelda Fitzerald when her strange and lovely prose were interrupted by a loud, slow, obnoxious voice:

“Can I have a cheese sandwich? But toasted? You know, like, so you toast the bread first, and then you make the sandwich? And I don’t want the cheese melted, so make sure you toast the bread first, yeah?

“And can I have a hot chocolate? Does it come with cream? No? Oh… okay. Then, can you make it, like, extra milky? So, like, less cocoa powder and more milk?”

Of course, almost as soon as she started speaking, I couldn’t help myself looking up to see who this ridiculous person was, and found, to my horror, that this speech was accompanied by patronising miming gestures. At first, I was genuinely perplexed as to why she would do this – did she really think that anyone, especially someone who worked in a café, wouldn’t know how to make a sandwich and a hot chocolate? But when the waitress spoke again, in her gentle Italian accent, I realised – this girl thought she wouldn’t understand her, and therefore she had decided to treat her like an imbecile.

This exasperates me for two reasons. The first is simply that it is rude. No matter what you think of someone, it is common courtesy to speak to them politely. The second is the arrogance. This may seem obvious, but after seeing and hearing that, I feel the need to point out that someone speaking English, in this case, perfect English, in an accent that shows it is not their first language, indicates that they speak at least one other language. Brits in general are not good at speaking other languages – we tend to expect everyone to speak English, regardless of their background. I know that I am guilty of this – I do know a little French, but truthfully, I only speak it when I have to, because I’m always afraid of being misunderstood, or being mocked for my lack of eloquence. (I know, I should try harder and get better – the obvious solution is moving to Paris so I have to.) I am always impressed by people who are bilingual, and so I find it hard to understand how some people can be so conceited as to treat someone as though they are less intelligent because they speak with a foreign accent.

My outrage was slightly softened, however, by the thought that, in spite of the official linguistic view that all accents are created equal, in my book, a soft, sultry Italian accent beats a loud English accent any day.

Kirsty x

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