[ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED ON 28TH JANUARY 2010 BY RED C MAGAZINE]
When I was growing up in a quiet little town in the south of England, I was always jealous of people with accents. Wouldn’t it be wonderful, I thought, to be able to ask for jellied eels, or a sausage barm, without sounding like a ponce. Wouldn’t it be bloody brilliant if the sound of my voice alone communicated a deep-rooted link to the precise location of my upbringing.
I do, of course, have vocal indicators that identify me as southern English. Many can even place my accent in the south east. But am I from Basildon or from Basingstoke; from Berkshire or from Kent? My part-BBC, part-Estuary English style of speech gives few pointers to a precise location. The fact is, millions of people across a large part of the country speak in much the same boring way as I do. My voice is a poor compass. It’s hardly surprising, then, that I dreamt of having a real accent.
And I wasn’t the only one. Quite a few of my schoolmates, acutely aware of our shared non-accent, tried to adopt alternatives – with varying degrees of success. Out of my best friends, Mark went Cockney, Dave became Brummie and Pete plumped for Pakistani: a particularly ill-considered move that did little for his reputation among the local Asian community.
Now in our mid-twenties, I think we’ve all accepted we’ll never have real accents. We’ll always be simply ‘southern’. Yet I remain absolutely fascinated by cities or small regions with a unique style of speech. So when I was given the opportunity to move to Manchester in mid-2008 there was just a single thought that crossed my mind. Mint.
Greater Manchester is an accent-lovers nirvana. The Manc accent itself offers a myriad of tonal quirks, including the wonderful over-enunciated and occasionally whiny vowels (‘Manchestaaah’) and the hard g sounds on ‘ng’ words (‘rin-g’, ‘san-g’), plus an unparalleled range of ways to communicate satisfaction (‘sound’, ‘top’, ‘ace’, ‘sorted’). Head less than ten miles out of town and you’ll experience the very different accents of Bolton, Oldham, Salford and Bury, or go just a little further for the distinctive twangs of Rochdale, Wigan, Burnley, Preston and Blackburn. That’s ten noticeably distinguishable accents in the county of Lancashire alone. It’s a far cry from the homogenous parlance of the South East.
Let’s extend the range to 35 miles – around the distance from Guildford to Newbury as the crow flies. Now, I’m not sure how familiar you are with these two accents, but I grew up in the area and I know I’d struggle to differentiate them. However, go 35 miles out of Manchester in any direction and you’ll find an entirely different way of speaking. There’s Bradford to the north, Sheffield to the east, Stoke to the south and, of course, Liverpool to the west. Just think: Manc to Scouse in under 35 miles. Mad… fer it.
There are lots of explanations for this, of course, but I won’t go into them here. A regional accent is like a carefully constructed magic trick; the spectacular and mesmerising effect is all down to a disappointingly mundane cause. The history of British accents is a long, dry and thoroughly speculative tale of Angles, Saxons, Romans, Celts and twentieth century immigrants. However, I would definitely recommend a visit to the BBC Voices website, where you can listen to fantastic regional accents from all around the UK for free!
As for me, I’m really going to miss the Manc accent. I’m leaving the Mecca of the North next week to explore the regional accents of Guatemala, and when I return I suspect I’ll be living in the south east. I don’t know if I’ll end up in Manchester again. But I’ve loved getting to know the accent (even if I couldn’t learn to mimic it) and have used my time here to explore the other vocal quirks of The North. I’ve enjoyed a day of cricket with tea-sipping Yorkshiremen and a weekend of partying with potty-mouthed Geordies. I’ve reeled at the Scouse-Welsh combo accent of Chester and fallen for the North Eastern-Scots mish-mash of Berwick-upon-Tweed. I’ve finally gotten to know some of the accents I’d always admired from a distance and, most of all, I’ve experienced total immersion in the intricacies of one very particular way of speaking. The Manc way. And you know what?
I’m dead glad fer tha’.