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Sound and fury: cockney ducks and mimicking politicians

Language has always been more fashion than science: as Bill Bryson once said, the way we use it ‘wanders around like hemlines’. A couple of weeks ago, the Washington newspaper the Olympian ran an article headed ‘When visiting the South, please leave fake accent at home’. Its writer, Kathleen Parker, finds political charlatan accents among the most objectionable of linguistic trends, citing the Republican candidate Mitt Romney, who greeted a Mississippi crowd with “Mornin’, y’all”. Would Romney, Parker asks, greet an audience at a Jewish Community Center with: “Oy vey, did I ever enjoy my loxies and bagels this morning!”? Or African Americans with: “Yo, dawg, wassup?” Actually, yes, Parker concludes, remembering Romney approaching an African-American baby at a 2008 Martin Luther King Jr. Day parade. Pointing to the baby’s necklace, he apparently asked: “What’s happening? You got some bling-bling here!”

Y’know it makes sense

Such attempts by politicians to get down with a particular portion of the electorate is nothing new. Tony Blair was regularly lampooned for his regular ‘y’know’-ing when a familiar touch was required, while some phonologists have long claimed that the Queen herself is embracing the so-called sounds of Estuary English. In fact being a linguistic chameleon has its uses for every one of us, and for the young it is almost a requirement. For generations we have used one verbal lexicon for our parents, and a quite different one for our peers. We all know that we are what we speak, but fewer of us ponder the level of code-switching involved as we decide which of our various selves we wish to display. Most of this versatility involves the words we select, but accents can be flipped, too. As Romney showed, it is a difficult and risky task to manoeuvre. Professor Higgins and TV’s Faking It aside, words can come and go, but sounds are a little harder to shift.

Animals have accents too

The way we talk is deep-rooted; when we open our mouths, we express more than we think. Go to Yorkshire and you’ll find villages where a local’s sounds will tell insiders whether they were born in the north or south side of the high street. Even animals have their own dialect: a couple of years ago I reported on a Professor of Phonetics at London University confirming what West Country farmers have suspected for decades: their cows speak ‘Zummerzet’. Their moos, the research showed, had a distinctive twang – as distinctive, in fact, as the Scottish crossbill, the bird which, sonograms can now reveal, attracts a mate from among the whole crossbill population by adopting a strong Highlands accent. There’s more: the cockney quack of a London duck, we are told, is like a shout and a laugh, whereas Cornish ducks deliver more of a giggle. We may titter along with the ducks, but perhaps it’s not surprising that animals absorb the sounds of their environment as readily as their human counterparts.

Keeping it local

Far from melting into a monotonic gloop, the BBC’s Voices project revealed that local sounds are distinct and thriving, some more than others. Natural selection according to accent has long been the rule: even with the most innocent of intentions it’s hard to attempt a Birmingham or Liverpool accent without appearing to mock either to the hills. Geordies, on the other hand, now share in one of the currently coolest brands on the phonetic map. The change in the fate of its sounds is good news, looking back to the days when variation was the rule and dialects enjoyed a more even playing field (and before the chancery courts of London began, in the 14th century, to view the accents of the south-east as being somehow better): no need for the medieval Romneys to ratchet things up a gear to play to the gallery.

Hearing full-strength Scouse from Number Ten may well still be light years away, but the opportunity is probably more real now than it has ever been. The one single certainty about English is change, and the maligned Brummies and Scousers can take heart from the fact that their day may be just around the corner – and the mimicry skills of politicians will meet their biggest challenge yet.