The Place My Voice And I Are From: A Few Words On Accents

I am from a Place, but I have been around a bit, so maybe the truth is that I am from lots of Places now. I am also not originally from a Place in the way that some people are from a Place. I am not from a Place in the same way that my mum, who is from Liverpool, is from a Place. I am not from a Place in the same way my friend Pat, who is from The Black Country, is from a Place. Where I am from, if we are talking about the first two decades of my life, is an Almost Place: not the middle of the middle, but the end of the middle, not even quite conspicuous for its middleness. For people who live in southern Britain, the distinction might not be important; for me, or people from just north of where I’m from, it’s crucial. All my mum and dad had to do in 1975 was buy a house 20 miles further up the country’s oesophagus, in an area that really didn’t look all that different to ours, with its similarly large quota of pebbledash terraces, spoil heaps, chip shops and miners’ welfares, and it would all be so much more clear cut. I don’t quite feel like a card-carrying midlander but if I claimed to be a northerner to, say, my Sheffield friends, who live not much more than half an hour north of where I went to school, they’d laugh me out of the room. It’s the same place, but it’s also not. If you listen closely you can hear signs of it in my accent, such as the fact that my accent sounds like nails scraping on the walls of Yorkshire, asking to be let in. It’s been softened a lot, sanded down by years of living in East Anglia and the South West, years of living with and around southerners, but it’s still very much there. Posh people from anywhere south of Birmingham think I sound northern. Non-posh people from anywhere north of that think I don’t. It’s all part of the confusion of being from the End Of The Middle. It’s also an aspect of the larger complexity of life on a small island where, wonderfully, you can drive ten minutes up a road and hear voices that sound like they’re from a different planet. We joke about accents in Britain but they are a more heated topic than we will admit. When we discuss them, we discover that we are essentially still the people we were two centuries ago, locked proudly into the culture of our own village and rarely leaving it.

I know what I used to sound like. I can have a listen if I want to remind myself, since what I used to sound like is preserved on a VHS tape recorded when I was 16. There is nothing more illustrative of the softening of my accent to me than meeting up with the Nottingham friends I still know from that period, who good-naturedly ripped the piss because I sounded “Yorkshire” and “like a farmer” to their ears back then, and realising that in the two decades I’ve been away someone has flipped the picture: to me, they are now the ones with the coal and strong tea in their voices. But there is a difference: their accents are undiluted Nottingham; mine is North Nottinghamshire, made less gritty by my time away. It’s a disused colliery where grass and four or five trees have grown, masking the iron ore underneath. It also retains just the faintest hint of passive Merseyside, owing to the fact that it’s where most of my blood relatives – my mum’s side of the family – are from.

My dad’s accent is stronger than mine but it’s marginally more southern than mine, more Nottingham, less North Nottinghamshire-Derbyshire border, more factory, less pit. Growing up, as he greeted me with phrases such as “ALL RIGHT, YOTH?” and “ET’S LET’S ‘AY A GLEG”, I was barely aware he had any accent at all. That’s what will happen when you live in the End Of The Middle and manage to go until just after your nineteenth birthday without meeting a properly upper middle-class, university-educated person from southern England. To me, Nottingham was the refined southern accent in my immediate life, with the exception of perhaps Leicester, but Leicester didn’t really count, as it was way down south, over 40 miles away, and you only went there on special occasions.

By my mid-20s, I was obviously still sounding comically common and upcountry to some of the privately educated newspaper editors I was working for. “‘’Ey up, Tum!” one would say in a slightly off parody of a Nearly Northern accent when he answered the phone to me: a joke that, at least to his ears, never got old. Prior to nervously recording a segment for an arts show on the BBC, I was offered an elocution lesson so listeners would find it easier to understand me. After the show was broadcast, I was told the presenter thought me a “new and different voice”. What he meant, I now realise, is that unlike most of the other people who appeared on the show, I sounded a bit working class and northern in a hard-to-pinpoint way. I have never consciously tried to change my accent and it makes me a little sad to think that when I was younger and a little less sure of myself any of these experiences might have had any insidious impact on the way I spoke. Before I moved from Devon to the Peak District in December, 2017, I could feel my accent rushing back, doing a happy jig in my larynx at the knowledge that it might soon be free again. I have no doubt that if I’d decided to stay in the Peak long term, instead of moving back to the South West, it would have returned unabashed, perhaps even gaining a new overcoat in the process. Ultimately, I don’t feel that the old, missing parts of my accent have vanished; it’s more that they’re just napping. It only usually only takes a couple of drinks, or time spent with people from my homeland, to wake them up.

You can hear my voice on the audio version of my book 21st-Century Yokel here.

I don’t write for any mainstream media publications and chose to put my writing on this site instead: around 200,000 words of it so far. It’s all free, but if you feel like donating a small monthly amount to help me keep going, you can do so either by paypal or GoCardless. You’ll also find a subscription link on the home page if you’d like to sign up to be notified when a new piece is published.

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11 thoughts on “The Place My Voice And I Are From: A Few Words On Accents

  1. Having been born and bred in Bulwell, I didn’t realise that I had an accent until I travelled all the way to Derby to do my teacher training.

  2. Mine is North Lincolnshire yellow belly tempered by decades of living in the south and south west.
    I find it easy to decipher different regional accents, and can still read Lincolnshire dialect poetry. However much I think my accent is now a mish mash of lots of different influences over the years, when I meet someone for the first time in my home town they usually say – ‘you’re from the North, aren’t you?’ Cue incredulous laughs from Sheffield people.

  3. Being born and brought up in Carlisle I was always acutely aware of ‘accents’ as I lived ‘north of the river’ which was posh, but my family wasn’t. Moving to Oxford in my twenties I was ribbed for my ‘Geordie’ accent (I kid you not), but pretty much anything north of Birmingham was viewed as foreign. Having now been resident in my adopted home county of Yorkshire for over 20 years I still have a carlisle/northern accent, despite now being ‘educated’. Loved the essay Tom.

    1. For a number of years we have lived in North Yorkshire having been born and brought up in the North-East. Over the years we have had various friends from Carlisle, and to our ears, all have had a (gentle) geordie-ish accent to our ears. Our daughter was born and lived in Yorkshire until she went to uni in Oxford. Ever since, everyone in Oxford thinks she has a rough Northern accent and back in Yorkshire everyone thinks she’s a “posh Southerner”!

  4. Having been born in Essex and brought up on Tyneside, I have a mostly Northern but not quite pinpoint-able accent. As I am currently living in Abu Dhabi, I have found that my accent has softened somewhat to help me be better understood by other people. But when I go back to the UK on visits my Geordie-ish accent reasserts itself.

  5. I was born in Brighton and grew up in Scotland – umpteen years later some people still struggle with my accent and ask if I’m from the West Country.

  6. I was born in a small town in Northern California, and didn’t move from the region until I was in my 30’s. As a child I was frequently bullied because I sounded “different” compared to the rest of my classmates. Teachers would refer me to the speech therapist each school year, but she would never find anything wong. When I moved to Missouri I suddenly heard what my peers heard all along — a distinct Mid-Western accent! My mother and grandparents came from Iowa and Kansas, and I apparently picked up their accent when learning to talk. I have five siblings so I am not sure why it only affected me, LOL.

  7. I was born in the East End of London in the early 50s, I am officially a true cockney, something I am quite proud of – but we were moved out when I was four and cockney became mixed up with the general South West London accent. However, my dad believed in speaking “proper”. I moved to Staffordshire so acquired a bit of Midlands, which was very noticeable to people in london, but in the Midlands I was noticed easily as being from London. I think my accent is pretty neutral in fact

  8. I grew up in Hull, went to university in Leicestershire, and have lived with people from the Black Country, Essex and Newcastle, and dwelled in Cambridgeshire and Devon for short periods.

    I now live in the midlands near Nottingham. My partner (a Londoner) always comments that after a weekend back in East Yorkshire I am hard to understand, and sound like i’ve just stepped off a fishing boat. My Hull friends all pounce on the softened vowels in words like glass as evidence of my southernerliness.

  9. I find this essay & all of its replies quite fascinating, as I did some linguistic studies in college & I have always been a fan of MY FAIR LADY. However, as I am from the states (I reluctantly admit), I have no idea how all of these accents actually sound. If only there were a sound sample of each accent that is mentioned above.

  10. I’ve no idea what my accent is these days! Parents from Nottinghamshire (Kirkby in Ashfield), born in Lincoln, moved to North Staffordshire, where I grew up, but have lived in London since I was 18. Mind you, about 20 years ago I walked into a shop to get a new watch battery, and the watchmender asked me immediately “And which bit of the North Midlands are you from?”, so I suppose some of it still shows.

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