I love accents. I love pretty much everything about them. I love the way in which they actually convey things – sincerity, guile, sneering, superiority and their opposites and complements – all surreptitiously; all in a way that is at the same time so compelling to our intuition as to be obvious to all, and yet so subtle as to go entirely under the radar of the rational. Why should the Cockney accent sound cheeky to the point of criminality, the word “gov’nor” a study in irony making it anything from a mark of respect to a comprehensive put down? Why should an ocker accent imply the matey slapdash sensibility that it does. It doesn’t seem to me to be any more possible to answer those questions than it is to figure out why Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings is so sad while the first movement of Beethoven’s 6th Symphony is so peaceful and lovely.
But there you have it. One quality of some accents is that some are crafted with strong aesthetic considerations. Some are clearly crafted with an eye (or ear!) to their elegance: french most obviously but many Italian accents too. English speaking accents don’t convey elegance, or even much enjoyment of the sounds made. But then there are exceptions. I was listening to Jesse Norman – an interesting conservative English MP and his accent is clearly crafted with a certain kind of aesthetic in mind. He clearly enjoys making those sounds, and I quite like listening to them. I can’t think of any Australian accent like that. Indeed, on a recent world trip, it struck me how incredibly flat the Australian accent is. Unfortunately so, but there you go. The Americans, the British sing their words. Not easy to explain what I mean here, but imagine a Cockney or just a South Englander popping “know what I mean” into a sentence. It’s very musical. I’ll try to illustrate it here with the symbol “>” indicating some kind of upward energy and “<” downward with = being flat.
Know(>) what(=) I(=) mean(<). Hmm, that may not help but in any event, I’ve tried.
Meanwhile here is Jesse Norman speaking about one of his heros Edmund Burke at the RSA. Have a listen to the accent and see what you think. The one person who I’ve heard making the same sounds – though in so pronounced a fashion as to be buffoonish is the cricket commentator Henry Blofeld. And lo and behold it turns out they both come from Eton! So perhaps we’re hearing the Eton accent here in its toned down and toned up forms. Anyway, I find both accents rather enjoyable, Norman’s as a serious one and Blofeld as a caricature.
Anyway, the focus on accents does not do justice to the content of Jesse Norman’s case for Edmund Burke which I strongly recommend to you – as I do his biography of Burke, which I downloaded from Amazon and read and recommend. I might even post on it if I get the time.