Broken English

An American expat describes the varied dialects that can be heard throughout Great Britain. After Brexit, what will the country sound like?

An American expat describes the varied dialects that can be heard throughout Great Britain. After Brexit, what will the country sound like?

Whey aye, man.
Shy bairns get nowt.

These phrases are English, I’ve been assured. They’re the words of a friend in London who speaks in such a thick Newcastle brogue that I’m often forced to ask for translations to American English.

“Of course.”
“If you don’t speak up, you won’t get anything.”

Call me a stereotype, but as an American I’ve found his so-called Geordie accent quite charming. In addition to being near incomprehensible to outsiders like me, it feels like a foil to cultural homogenization. Whereas people from the far corners of the United States increasingly sound like the Kardashians (“I literally died, LOL”), my pal retains some old-fashioned character and a firm tie to where he’s from.

And yet those same thoughts turned to arguments at the hands of some Brexit supporters last June, when 52 percent of the United Kingdom voted to leave the E.U. For one, the pro-Brexit politician Nigel Farage said he was propelled by “social cohesion,” and lamented visiting parts of Britain that were so rife with non-English accents they felt “like a foreign land.” He must have forgotten about Geordies when he posed this question on Sky News: “Don’t we want to live in a country where we speak the same language?”

From the moment I moved to London from New York two years ago, I became obsessed with the way people say things. Thankfully not in an “Ohmahgah, how do you say aluminum?” sort of way; I was born in Dublin, so I got those jollies in years ago. Instead, I was fascinated—and a bit intimidated—by the breadth of accents in this city, where each of 56 regional twangs, and even more hyper-local dialects, converge.

In my first few weeks especially, it seemed that every encounter presented a different shade of speaking, from cockney (Adele) to clipped Queen’s English (Norman Foster) to scouse (John Lennon), to my personal favorite, the soft, song-like Welsh lilt (Anthony Hopkins).

One significant lesson from those early days was in East London. There, oiright is a contraction of, “Are you alright?” to which I always replied with a defensive “I’m fine!” before fretting about how my inner turmoil must be manifesting itself. In time I realized it’s just the way some Brits say “Hi, how are you?” so I might have actually been masking my neuroses quite nicely. (The correct answer, for reference, is a casual, “Yeah, fine.”)

A trained ear in England can glean more about someone in 10 seconds than you could in 10 minutes in the States. This includes everything from where a person was born or grew up,to the annual cost of his high school education, to his all-important soccer allegiances. As George Bernard Shaw put it in 1912: “It is impossible for an Englishman to open his mouth without making another Englishman hate or despise him.”

Indeed, a quick survey of friends revealed one who consciously changed her way of speaking after moving to London from Gloucester, three hours west of town: “People would have thought I was a farmer,” she said. Another friend with an accent I’d call very posh said she actually learned to speak in a Scottish brogue, but replaced it when she went to high school south of London. “It was easier than speaking differently,” she said.

My own ear became more attuned when casting voiceover artists for online videos at my job. Having found it near-impossible to find a British voice that wouldn’t alienate at least one interested party—every option being too posh, too specific, too indecipherable—I considered turning to actors from Ireland instead. Ironically, the formerly loaded Irish accent is now a comparatively blank slate.

And yet in the days after the Leave vote, the accents of each of the 930,000 Europeans living in London—French, Italian, Polish, to name a few—felt instantly fraught. In post-Brexit England, “Shy bairns get nowt” feels strangely resonant. The people have spoken, in their many variegated accents, and now we wait to see what we get.

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