Puzzling over accents gives me enormous pleasure. Trying to work out a person’s origins from their voice is an obsession [see In a manner of speaking Greyhares, 9 September 2012] and there is little more disquieting than hearing an accent that I cannot place, or one that jars. At the same time, disguising my own voice is fun and, in one respect, it plays a central role in my life.
For years, when phoning close family and when the mood took me, I would open the conversation disguising my voice as that of, say, a Scottish imp or a long-lost grandmother. The act would go on until I was rumbled or laughter took over. These days of course, the words ‘Joe’ or ‘Dad’ appear on the recipient’s screen, so my fun has had to come to an end. Modern phone technology has conspired to blow my cover.
When I am in France I adopt another vocal disguise by trying to sound not like me, but like a native Frenchman. Once I truly believed that speaking with a French accent was the act of an imposter. Now it feels a justifiable goal and, although realistically it will never be achieved, I have recently passed one hurdle; while the locals soon realise that I am from another place, they rarely try to help out by speaking English.
Not all adopted accents have the power to charm. A few weeks ago I opened an email from Dave, a leading light in the old boys’ network of my former school. Though it was an impersonal circular, it was his voice rather than his face that jumped out of the screen at me, and it made me both shudder and feel harried. The voice I heard was not his original voice, the voice of his early teenage years, but the one he had adopted one summer holiday.
Dave and I were in the same class at school. He was never a close friend, more an acquaintance, and somewhat of a rival at that. Dave was the best at everything – top of the class, outstanding in sport, always at ease. Nevertheless he was “one of us”, that is until a voice change in September 1957, at the start of our last year together at school.
We lived just north of London, and at home I was always being told off for having a cockney accent – nowadays it would probably be referred to as ‘estuary’. Like everybody else at school, I dropped my aitches and swallowed the ends of words. According to my parents that was a crime against received pronunciation. I should speak properly; aitches were to be pronounced and not dropped, ends of words to enunciated. I heard the message but didn’t accept it, so I persisted in my ways and my parents carried on in theirs.
With this personal battle raging, Dave’s new accent was particularly galling. Over the summer he must have attended elocution classes. He was going to be the best at speaking too! Suddenly he just spoke posh, his voice sounded pinched, even nasal. Every aitch was pronounced but this curious accent went so far as to be unreal, and when he first spoke I thought he was joking. But no, he was deadly serious and I despised him for what he had done. This accent, this betrayal, was a step too far. He had lost so much of his previous way of speaking that I could not recognise the person I had known for years.
While I can live with the negative aspects of new phone technology and am happy with my advances in French, I don’t feel that I can forgive Dave, whose new accent was to become permanent. Some forty years after leaving school I met him by chance in a corridor in the House of Lords. From behind me came this totally artificial clipped whine and I knew it could only be him. By now only a few people would remember how the real Dave used to speak. But then, who is the real Dave, or Joe, or Dad anyway? And should it really matter?
Photo: A group of boys evacuated from London and the Thames Estuary at Totnes in South Devon, 1941. Ministry of Information Photo Division Photographer (Imperial War Museum).