My friend Cristina gets a dreamy look in her eyes when she talks about Luke. Luke is the voice of a podcast targeted at language learners, who want to learn RP (Received Pronunciation) English. Cristina thinks that Luke is a better authority on English than me, because the way I sometimes drop my ts makes my accent ‘a little bit Cockney’ and therefore less exemplary. Bristling from this latest brush with Basque directness, I demand to hear Luke, half-hoping that he’ll sound like Brexiteer Jacob Rees-Mogg, so that I’ll be able to oppose him on grounds of all that is moral and hip.
But to my chagrin, the podcast has updated RP for the Richard-Curtis-watching contingent, because Luke sounds like a cross between Hugh Grant in Love Actually (bumbling posh) and Hugh Grant in About A Boy (cool, North London posh), even dropping a few ts himself, every now and then.* Cristina is thrilled with Luke, because she understands him perfectly, even if she does wonder whether his accent exists in the real world. I can’t help teasing her that Luke’s speech is on the slow and deliberate side; that he’s maybe in the seventh month of recovery from a stroke.
About five seconds later, I feel terrible about insulting Luke, when he’s only the innocent aide to my friend’s English learning. But I have a complicated relationship with RP’s clipped tones and long vowels, with how it posits itself as the official accent of Britain and its former colonies, the white light to all other colours of the rainbow. Owing to its longstanding association with royalty and the political classes, RP is instantly authoritative and also, in my opinion, the best accent for fending off criticism or assault. RP was the standard at my academic girls’ school, a place where having one Welsh grandparent – let alone two Greek parents! – was exotic. When I first heard it, I thought RP had an unflattering intonation that could make blithe young girls sound like cross old men. And yet, after seven years in that institution, the inevitable happened and I began to sound, well, posh, as the various accents of my parents and carers got filtered out.
Over the years, while RP remained dominant, I saw that my accent could be like water, reflecting back the nuances of people who spoke differently. My rs would roll when I spoke with Europeans, whereas with Northerners, I could hear my vowels flattening. The voice in my head, though, would switch back to RP, not just in accent, but in its concise, sophisticated diction.
Since moving to San Sebastián four months ago, where the main languages are euskera and castellano, my exposure to RP has dropped. I hear English often, but it’s tilted through the Castilian phonetics of EFL (English as a Foreign Language) students, the Scouse of the Beatles puppets on the Boardwalk and the mellow drawl of Ashley from Alabama, who is sat with Cristina and me in this discussion of accents. Ashley, who has my favourite kind of US accent, makes ‘twenty’ more like ‘twiiiinny’ and ‘going to’ more like ‘gunna’; she also prefers adjectives to adverbs, to ‘go slow’ instead of ‘going slowly’. When Ashley’s around, enunciation feels awkward and I can’t help drawing out my vowels and dropping a few consonants. Alas, on me, the result is less Dolly Parton than East End Cockney.
Meanwhile, thanks to my injured ankle, I’ve been hibernating with still another type of English, Hiberno – which is etymologically appropriate, because the Latin words for cold weather retirement (hibernation) and Ireland (Hibernia), both derive from hibernus (winter). Now that I’m living in a Catholic, maritime part of Europe, which is undergoing significant social and political change, Hiberno-English novels and podcasts feel more relevant than RP ones and they’re having an effect on how I experience language and speech. Weeks after reading A Goat’s Song by Dermot Healy and Milkman by Northern Irish writer, Anna Burns, I find myself thinking in circumlocutory, rhythmic repetitions, of small things as wee, the man in the shop as your man. Also, after hearing it on several podcasts, shift, an ambiguous term that covers the territory between meeting and mating with someone eligible/ridey, makes me snigger in a way it didn’t a month ago, especially outside of an Irish context. A New-Age American’s obsession with shifting bad habits, unwittingly makes me think back to an Irish podcaster’s dread of shifting an unidentified cousin at their underpopulated town’s disco. In both cases, something undesirable is being shifted, but with a different result.
But have these weeks of Hiberno-hibernation had an effect on the way I pronounce my rs? According to Kevin, an Irish English teacher who I caught bullying an EFL student about his inability to say the plural of scientist, my accent displays rogue symptoms of Irish rhoticity, meaning that I emphasise rather than swallow the letter r, especially at the end of words. Oh no, I’m probably imitating you, I told him, I’ve a tendency to do that. Later, though, when I was reading some work aloud, I couldn’t help hearing my rhoticised rs; but whether they come from the past month’s Irish immersion or from being looked after by a Scottish nanny, as a ten-year-old, I can’t be certain.
In truth, when I’m told I have a Cockney lack of ts and an Irish abundance of rs, I feel a bit funny, as though I’ve lost part of my identity as an educated-sounding British person and the privileges that come with this. I wonder how that waitress at Gerald’s Bar does it, the one who keeps her accent cut-glass, even after four years of being here. It’s an accent she carries into Spanish, one that makes her sound foreign, despite her perfect grammar. Knowing little about her, I imagine that she received her pronunciation for life a long time ago, that the Queen’s way of speaking is deeply rooted in her. My own English, I’ve decided, is less received than receptive, continually opening to new sounds and expressions.
*Listening to these clips of Hugh Grant again, made me realise just how slowly he speaks. I mean, it’s like he’s made for export.