NON-FICTION: I say mam, you say mum: why we should love our regional accents

I recently packed some books and jumpers up in a backpack and a battered blue suitcase and moved to Glasgow from Newcastle, settling in a small one bed flat in Shawlands with my boyfriend and a violin. Other things too, of course, but it’s the boyfriend and the violin that I didn’t have in Newcastle. The decision to finally make the move was a bit of a whirlwind one, based upon crashing my car (‘Bernice’, my beloved Honda Jazz) on the M8 in the kind of motorway pileup you see on those police helicopter programmes.

Having lived in Newcastle for all 25 years of my life, I was beginning to wonder if I was ever going to leave. Friends returned home at Christmas from their respective locations across the country, their voices tinged with inflections from exotic places like Aberdeen and Plymouth. But not me. I was practically rooted to my North-eastern corner, like the monkey puzzle trees in the street on which I grew up, or a smaller, less bronzed Angel of the North. My aspirations to Euro-glamour in a beret and a Breton top were rendered embarrassingly false by the fact that underneath it all I was about as cosmopolitan as a stottie smeared in pease pudding. Now, without a car and faced with the prospect of trains between the two cities, it seemed like the right time to take a deep breath and jump.  

In the pub that night, the enormity of what I’d done began to hit me. People move cities all the time, of course. But with my customary tendency to construct momentous poignancy out of life events that other people might approach with a carefree spirit, I wondered how I’d look back on this time in years to come. My story would now forever be split into categories: before I moved to Glasgow, and after. Floundering about the bottom of my glass of whisky in a maelstrom of newness and fear, I was overcome by a sense that things were about to change for me. Big time.  

And I wasn’t wrong: there have been lots of initial changes and differences for me to get used to as I settle into a city that could comfortably swallow Newcastle whole and still have room for Middlesbrough. Fish suppers, police boxes, words like braw and dreich, being in possession of the foresight at all times to have the exact change for the bus driver. But the most notable has been the consistency of comments on my voice. I began to imagine that my Geordie accent now served as a constant badge of otherness. Ranging from mere observation, to barbs tinged with unexpected hostility (“you’re just a Scotsman with your head kicked in” being my favourite, which I think is meant to suggest that I don’t sound very intelligent, but, then again, I could be wrong) to be constantly reminded of the places that you have left behind when trying to start again gets tiresome, pretty quickly.

It’s not an experience limited to Newcastle ex-pats, of course. I’m sure it’s a recognisable situation for anyone with a broad accent, moving anywhere else with a particularly strong cultural identity, though the stereotypes will differ. But for me, the frequency with which it was mentioned – made into ‘a thing’ – came as a shock. Despite my Northumbrian cocoon, for a long time I was embarrassed by my Geordie accent. I asked my parents for elocution lessons when I was 15, and was almost laughed out the house. Later, though, I wished I’d been granted them: I would go to academic conferences and events and be painfully conscious that I sounded very different to the other speakers (“I just thought you might like to address your accent” said one female academic whose work I admired. “It’s just that it’s not very professional”). I tried, with a debatable degree of success, to soften my voice. I was trying to forget.

Part of what I’ve always perceived to be the problem is that a Newcastle brogue is such a recognisable accent that it renders the standard party question: “so where are you from?” useless. Before I’d had a chance to explain, preconceptions were made and narratives about me constructed, all in the time it took me to say ‘hello’. Then there are the negative connotations: the assumption of comparative poorness, less education, less intelligence: all obviously entirely unfounded but often brought up as if to be fact. I still sometimes think about my failed first attempt at university in Manchester, when a pilled-up lad in a headband declared that I was “more Beano and Dandy than The Times”. It was a dubious comparison, meant to imply that I didn’t sound ‘proper’, or clever, but in many ways, I’m pleased to say that yes, I am more Dandy than Times.

Now, with my move to Glasgow, I railed against these acknowledgements of accent, wondering why it even mattered, anyway, about where anyone is from, when the things that we get fired up about are clearly so much more important than the streets that we grew up on. I imagined some kind of republic of free accents, where we might cast off the shackles of association and roam, borderless amongst voices. Our voices would carry no importance, no implications about our personalities, because why should they? I’d never hear ‘Geordie Shore, aye?’ again, because everyone would understand accents to be as matterless as they surely were.

But, whisper it….. wouldn’t that be just a bit boring? Because after all this time I’m beginning, finally, not to care. Having worked my arse off thus far, the fact that I can attend an academic conference should be a given. That I can do so in the same accent as my Grandma once chatted to Peggy at the next sewing machine should be a given, too.

My accent is the product of killing myself laughing on the phone to my best friend as a 16 year old, of Christmas dinners with my grandparents, of drives out into the pine trees of Northumberland that I wished would go on forever and of propping up the bar down in the Ouseburn valley in my favourite pubs with old friends. It’s a part of all of that, but it’s not all. My voice is just one bit of who I am: I am lots of things, but my voice carries history, not connotations.

So as I continue to find my feet in my new city, I’m going to be quietly confident that my accent is not a sign of otherness, but only a part of my journey thus far that I should celebrate. We are, all of us, chattering away in voices that belong to us and us alone and we should be proud of that, celebrating the differences that, in fact, unite us.

And best of all is that I can now buy birthday cards that say ‘Happy Birthday Ma’. Which is one step closer to ‘mam’ than ‘mum’.

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Lyndsey Skinner is a Regular Contributor at WIFIE. She recently moved to Glasgow from the North East of England. Despite being a thoroughly bookish sort, she left a PhD programme in English Literature early, and is now spending her days working freelance for charities, writing, and avoiding the rain in the cafes of Shawlands. Lyndsey writes creative non-fiction, is working on a novel about the poet Philip Larkin, and was most recently shortlisted for the Anthony Burgess/Observer prize for new arts journalism.