My husband used to say, “we are all ethnic somewhere.” It is a true and wise leveller. Another favourite line of his, in response to someone asking him, “Where is that accent from?” was to bounce back in his soft, mellifluous Canadian tones, “What accent? I don’t have an accent, you’re the one with the accent!” And, just as we are all ethnic somewhere, we all have an accent, somewhere. His words on ethnicity and accent came back to me yesterday as I was being served in a bank in Edinburgh. “Just pop your bank ‘cyard’ in there for a moment please,” he pushed the card reader towards me. I’d clocked him as being from Northern Ireland, almost certainly, the ‘y’ in the middle of the word narrowed it down to the North-West. I figured his homeplace was about 40 miles west of where I’m from, but with the Coleraine mountain lying between us there is a world of difference in our accents. “Are you from Derry?” I asked him. “Buncrana,” he told me. I was 16 miles out; the wrong side of the Irish border, but I was pleased enough at my ear detection.
They say that reciting the line ‘afellafellaffallary’ (a fellow fell off a lorry) will introduce your mouth and tongue to the shapes of an Ulster accent, but there is no such thing as one, single, uniform Ulster accent. The many voices to be heard within that small 6,000 square miles have different and distinguishing lifts, lilts and intonations, and that’s before one even travels to hear the accents of Cork or Kerry or those across the Irish Sea. I tend to think I don’t have much of an accent but I’ve kept a small scrap of folded paper that someone from far-off shores once handed to me – his transcript of something I had said: “We scarred the tine for R’s looking for a brine haired girl who was playing chins.” (I had said something about scouring the town for hours looking for a brown haired fiddler playing tunes.) As I read it aloud now, I sound like a parody of myself, surely an exaggeration, but it is a broadly accurate record of my particular brand of North Antrim accent – one of many across the county from which I hail, and that’s what makes it so interesting.
A foreign language film (and remember, we all speak a foreign language somewhere!) called ‘Roma’ has been nominated in a number of different categories, including best film, for this year’s Oscars. It’s a family-drama set in 1970s Mexico, and so the language is Spanish. Of course, for the English-speaking world the film will be sub-titled, but what annoyed its director, Alfonso Cuarón, was the decision made by some distributors to offer Iberian Spanish subtitles for a film already in Spanish – albeit Mexican accented Spanish, with presumably some dialect. He didn’t mince his words about what he thought of the sub-titles: “parochial, ignorant and offensive to Spaniards themselves.” There are some people for whom accents are indecipherable, but I think it is a case of fiddling with your brain frequency, like working the knobs of an old-fashioned radio, and learning to tune in. When we make the effort to understand, adapt our ear, and attune to new accents we discover nuggets of dialect, words re-ordered in a new and interesting way, spoken flows of poetic punctuation.
When my father rose to sing a traditional Irish song at a gathering, as he liked to do, he would go through a brief warm-up performance of lifting his hand to his head and twisting the side of his ear between his finger and thumb while he made a droning sound a bit like bagpipes filling with wind, while we all whooped and cahooed. He wasn’t just tuning up his voice, he was tuning his ear to allow himself to drop into a deeper dialect, transport himself to a place where the fluent vernacular flowed, and give respect to the local voice in which the song lyrics were written. Give your ear a wee turn before you read this one, find your frequency and polish up your best County Tyrone accent. Give it a go, sure nobody’s listening.
Sarah Ann,by W.F. Marshall (abridged)
I’ll change me way of goin’, for me head is getting’ grey,
I’m tormented washin’ dishes, an’ makin’ dhraps o’ tay;
The kitchen’s like a midden, an’ the parlour’s like a sty,
There’s half a fut of clabber on the street outby;
I’ll go down agane the morra on me kailey to the Cross
For I’ll hif to get a wumman, or the place’ll go to loss.
I’ve fothered all the kettle, an’ there’s nothin’ afther that
But clockin’ roun’ the ashes wi’ an oul Tom cat;
Me very ears is bizzin’ from the time I light the lamp,
An’ the place is like a graveyard, bar the mare wud give a stamp.
So often I’ll be thinkin’ an’ conthrivin’ for a plan
Of how to make the match agane wi’ Robert’s Sarah Ann.
That’s half a year or thereaways, an’ here I’m sittin’ yit,
I’ll change me way of goin’, ay I’ll do it while I’m fit,
She’s a snug well-doin’ wumman, no better in Tyrone,
An’ down I’ll go the morra, for I’m far too long me lone.
The night the win’ is risin’, an’ it’s comin’ on to sleet.
It’s spittin’ down the chimley on the greeshig at me feet,
It’s whisslin’ at the windy, an’ it’s roarin’ roun’ the barn,
There’ll be piles of snow the morra on more than Mullagharn;
But I’m for tacklin’ Sarah Ann; no matter if the snow
Is iverywhere she blowin’; when the morra comes I’ll go.