I am fascinated by accents. Any accents – I’m not fussy. I love to place accents and very often I get it wrong. I once asked my South African neighbour if he was from Australia. Another time, I confused an Irish accent with a French accent. Exactly! That’s how wrong I sometimes get them. But I’m very keen to learn and on the rare occasions when I do get it right, then I am often rewarded with a very welcoming smile and the opportunity to converse with ‘my new accent’ and the person accompanying it.
Recently, however, I am wondering should there be some sort of unwritten etiquette governing the use of accents in everyday life? And not just any accents, but the ones that don’t belong to you, I mean. For example if you are not from Germany, then should you attempt to speak, say English embellishing your words with a strong German tone to make your German acquaintance feel more comfortable? I have been giving this serious thought after talking with (I’ll call her) Linda, who told me that after a few days in her new job working at the Ministry of Justice, she happened to find herself in the enviable position of engaging in conversation with one of the judges who worked there. The conversation went something like this:
Judge: “Hello, I haven’t seen you around before. Are you new here?”
Linda: [A little shy and perhaps somewhat overawed] “Um … yes, I only started working here a few days ago.”
Judge: “You’re not from here are you? What part of the Caribbean are you from?”
Linda: “Well I was born here …”
Judge: “No … no. Where are your ….?”
Linda: “But my parents are from Jamaica”
Judge: “Ohh … ah Jamaica you come from! ‘Ow tings back a yard?”
Judge: “Oh well, enough of this nonsense! Ho ho ho …” Perhaps a little embarrassed and surprised by Linda’s reaction to his attempt at what he perceived to be his friendly attempt at the Jamaican ‘language’, his face turned bright pink as he went on his way, nose in the air, wig slightly askew and the tail of his black robe swishing in the air of mild confusion.
When Linda related the story to me that evening I was quite astonished that a judge would have nothing more sophisticated to say. His enquiry about the state of the country using what to me sounded like a feeble attempt at Jamaican patois to a new and junior member of staff on first meeting disturbed me. Was the only way that he felt he could connect with someone from a different country to speak to her in what he assumed to be, her language? Was this an attempt to put her at ease and show her that he could ‘get down with the lingo’ so to speak? What if Linda had spoken to him in an ‘upper class’ refined accent in a bid to elevate herself to his level and make him feel at home? “Oh, what ho! Judge Snodgrass. Delighted to meet you old boy!” Would he have found that charming or patronising? I wonder.
Later, on reflection, I thought to myself, wasn’t I being a tad hypocritical? Earlier that same year whilst in the process of moving home, we were blessed with the services of an excellent removal company and one of the employees was an Irish man. He was amiable and amusing. At no point did he attempt to speak Jamaican to me, but during the course of the move, an opportunity arose for me to try out my Irish. The van was parked outside my new neighbour’s home thereby preventing access to her driveway. She was Irish. She very kindly said it was not a problem while she parked further down the street. I came back to the Irish removal man [John] and said in my best Irish accent:
“To be sure, to be sure, it’s one of your countrymen over there!”
Did John take umbrage? No he did not. But with the broadest smile informed me that I had a lousy Irish accent!
And another time, on finding that a fellow-blogger hailed from Australia, I immediately started making references to ‘Sheila’, ‘barbies’ and a few ‘fair dinkums’ – all in the same sentence! And again, nothing was said in retaliation, and my comments were taken in the spirit of friendship.
This leads me then to re-examine my reaction to the Judge’s remarks. Was he perfectly within his rights to speak Jamaican when the occasion calls for it? Was he justified in his behaviour? Am I being judge –ist? Am I a hypocrite and is it time for me to hypo-quit?
~ Marie Williams – 2018