Although my Englishness is not the top thing I’d choose to draw attention to, nationality or origin does tend to come up when meeting people. I suppose it’s a typical ice-breaker question and it does answer those burning questions (sometimes unasked) Why do you look strange/like you’re not from around here? and Why do you sound strange/have an accent?
In Beirut, my identity could be succinctly summarised as “English”. Sometimes “European” was even enough. In Paris, on the other hand, where many people had visited the UK, “English, but not from London” pretty much covered it. Soon after I arrived in Spain I was asked the same “Where are you from?” question and I answered “England.” Then I felt rather stupid since the person asking was evidently English too and was wearing a look which said “Well, obviously!”
In my 13 years abroad I have never been surrounded by so many English people as here on the southern coast of Spain. Now simply saying “England” won’t pass muster in these awkward introductory moments where one is required to define oneself in a few choice terms before being allowed to move on to actual conversation. Not only must I be more precise, all the information I give will mean something, be processed and assessed by peers.
I can no longer merely be “English”, I have to be a southerner, from Devon, where all the posh folk are (so they tell me). Not that I need say much; my accent labels me a southerner before I admit it myself. At this point I should probably point out that most Brits in this part of Spain are from the Midlands or the North of England. Who would have thought that after years of being defined (superficially, at any rate) by my foreign accent in French and in Arabic, it is now my mother tongue accent that is getting me pigeon-holed.
I had spent a long time outside the English social class system. I didn’t miss it, I can tell you. Of course, every country has its class system, its social strata. In Lebanon, for many, being European alone was enough to put you in the upper ranks. But I could ignore that, with it being so out of touch with reality. This is something altogether closer to home. Everything I say is like a label for my little perch in that class-ridden society. A misleading label though.
Actually, I’m only a fake southerner. Where I grew up in a market town-cum-holiday village in south Devon, you only qualified as a “real” local if your parents were born there. Some people in school were from families who had been local fishermen or farmers or butchers for generations. The rest of us had moved in. I wasn’t a true local because my parents are from the north and the Midlands, both from working class families. So I grew up with a mixed accent; actually I think my parents’ speech varied a lot too depending on the situation, it’s just not the type of thing you think about as a kid.
I remember my older sister laughing at me when I was about 10 and inadvertently picked up the pronunciation of some local school friends – not a posh accent though, more a farming accent. And I was probably about 13 when I spent some time with a few “toffs” who laughed at my short-vowelled “fast” and “grass” and instead said “fahst” and “grahss”. A couple of years later, school friends pointed out that I sounded mostly normal except I said “lizzen” for “listen”.
I still seesaw between long or short a’s. Just the other day, while I was giving my three-year old a bath, she picked me up on saying what we would do “afterwards” with a short ‘a’. “We don’t say ‘afterwards’ mummy, we say ‘ah-fterwards’”, she announced from a mountain of bubbles. A bit rich, I reckon, since she gets her English almost entirely from me. Since she is learning to read, I do sometimes use a short ‘a’ sound on purpose when we are practising reading together as it seems inconsistent to read ‘cat’ with one type of ‘a’ and ‘pass’ with another. In my accent, the long ‘a’ is also the same sound as ‘ar’ makes in ‘cart’ too, making it particularly unhelpful for phonetic reading.
I was never aware of actually changing my accent as a kid, but I guess over my school years it was knocked into a fairly bland “standard” British accent of questionable paternity with the odd Geordie touch. (If you want to know what a fake southerner sounds like you can listen to me here, from about the 24 minutes mark.)
This may sound naive to proper Brits, but as an out-of-the-loop expat, I hadn’t realised quite how much I would be judged on my accent in my adult life. Now if only I could crank it up or down I could keep both camps happy…. but I’m afraid it’s entirely out of my control.
“Language most shows a man: Speak, that I may see thee.” – Ben Jonson