Am I less Welsh because I don’t sound it straight away? What even is a Welsh accent? In class obsessed Britain, what impact do accents have? These are some of the thought bubbles that sparked a wider internal conversation about accents and identity that I aim to share in this blog.
The title is courtesy of the plumber who came round today to my Brighton home and with whom I had a little chat. He asked where I was from- to which I responded South Wales-and that was his response. This is not a response I’m new to. In fact, it has now become the reply I expect. “I can’t hear an accent” or “You don’t sound it” are equally frequent, with a hint of suspicion in the voice. I suppose it’s an improvement to the response I often got while I lived in Spain which was “You’re English?” and once “You look like a whale” (which was intended as “You look Welsh”). But the point is, unlike people in Brighton who say “I’m from London” and receive the reply “Oh, where exactly?”, being from Wales is often loaded with an expectation for an accent and a disinterest in exact location. Just to clarify, I don’t have a strong Welsh accent, but what some people have described as a twang. Also, the experiences I am basing this blog on happened in Brighton which I suppose is quite far from Wales.
Firstly, I wish to establish the fact that Wales has a multitude of accents. The so called Valleys accent seems to be the one that crops up on comedy shows or in the media and I would say has become ‘The Welsh accent’. Although of course accents differ slightly between different valleys. I grew up in Cardiff (before moving to a border town) and I am very quick to pick up a hint of Cardiffian tones when someone speaks, but not as attuned as my Aunt who, when working in an office, could distinguish people in different areas of Cardiff by their accents. To the non-Welsh ear however, I wonder whether even if I had a strong Cardiff accent, I wouldn’t immediately be identified as Welsh as it doesn’t match the stereotypical ‘Valleys’ accent.
My Welsh twang is usually only picked up on once I say I’m from Wales. After receiving the classic reply, I explain that I’ve spent many years living in a border town without a characteristically strong Welsh accent, and living abroad and having to speak as clearly and neutral as possible. But I always find it interesting that before I say where I’m from people don’t take much notice of how I speak and then, the moment I say Wales, it’s as if an ‘accent detector’ is switched on. Interestingly, during college in Herefordshire people often picked up on my Welsh twang without me mentioning it. So, I suppose a lot of accent detection is very localised and we are more tolerant of the accents and dialects we are used to hearing.
This got me thinking about identity and accents. Do people think I’m less Welsh because I lack an accent? Probably. Would I feel more Welsh if I was quickly identified by strangers? Unlikely. But what are the wider implications of having a regional accent?
I recently watched ‘How to break into the elite’ a BBC documentary about the barriers that face the working class when trying to work in elite jobs and in the media industry. It became clear throughout the show that ‘being polished’ was a desirable trait and being well spoken is a prerequisite of this. A recruiter acknowledged that an applicant, with a strong Essex accent, would be perfect for a role, but wouldn’t put her forward because she ‘lacked polish’ aka she didn’t sound posh enough to work with posh clients. The presenter, Amol Rajan, ends the programme by saying “It’s still the most deeply rooted superstition in Britain today, that if you sound posh you must be clever. Do you want to live in a Country like that? I don’t”. And I completely agree. The idea that strong regional accents are not ‘well spoken’, and therefore not posh enough is a problem. The wider implications of this superstition are subtly acting as barriers in society.
So am I lucky I don’t have a strong ‘Welsh accent’ (of some description)? Would I feel obliged to neutralise it if I ever I wanted to work in an ‘elite’ job? Will my friends who would be identified as Welsh the moment they open their mouth be treated the same in interviews as those who have ‘posh’, well spoken voices? These are questions that, quite frankly, shouldn’t even have to be toyed with in 21st century Britain. Unfortunately, I think unless our obsession with class diminishes, regional accents will always be associated with class, and therefore have an inferior tone. But it certainly highlights the importance of having regional accents in mainstream media and exposing people to local role models who sound like them.
This isn’t something that will easily change. But a starting point would be for people to let go of stereotypes and expectations of accents. If Britain accepts you can be well spoken or posh and have a regional accent, we’ll be taking a massive leap forwards. On a personal note, if people just replied to “I’m from Wales” with “Where exactly?” that would be nice. Or better still, “Congratulations on winning the last rugby Grand Slam”.