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.


This entry was posted in Humour, Life, Literature. Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to Accents

  1. Nitza says:

    An oddity. I was born and raised in Adelaide; I’ve lived most of my life here in the eastern/inner-north-eastern suburbs. When travelling abroad, I am often asked where I am from, even by other Australians.

    Is Adelaide accent real? Can growing up in a house full of books, with educated parents, matter so much that other Australians don’t realise I’m Australian when I’m overseas?

    Before I began to travel, I wouldn’t have thought there to be that much difference between Australian accents. However, with time, I now realise that the northern suburbs of Adelaide are occupied by people who different to me, and that my relatives in Queensland also sound different, despite being similarly educated and raised. One would think that greater communications would harmonise our accents, and yet they vary. When I lived in Perth, there were very distinctive accents amongst some groups. Even so, we lack the variations found in the USA or the UK.

    • Nicholas Gruen says:

      The Adelaide accent is real enough, though fairly subtle. In so far as I can pick it up there are two distinct sounds. “y” is added to the end of words ending in “o”. I had a girlfriend from Adelaide for some time and used to tease her when she’d say in a friendly Adelaide voice “Helloy”. The other one is “L” which gets more of the “w” treatment as in “Rundw Maw” instead of Rundle Mall and “Schoow” instead of “School”.

      Adelaide is a nice friendly accent IMO.

  2. Rex R says:

    Not a big fan of Russian accents myself. It’s the cruel way the definite article is so casually severed from the sentence. It’s like they’ll be starting on your fingers next and only stop when they have what they want.

  3. JJ says:

    Thanks Nick – have just discovered the RSA recently – it’s quite a treasure trove of podcasts. Now listening to this – it is easy on the ear

  4. Chris Lloyd says:

    What. You didn’t like Julia’s accent?

    I rather enjoyed Christopher Hitchens’ accent, though for me it was hard to dissociate the accent from his articulate delivery.

    • Nicholas Gruen says:

      You’re right, I didn’t like Julia’s accent. I didn’t mind it’s Aussieness, but there was something tortured about it. It was very strange – and quite different to her sister. So like Bob Hawke I presume it was an adaptation to getting on in the ALP. But Bob’s accent was kind of fun – if a bit corny. Julia’s was tortured. The sound I really couldn’t bear was “unidy”, as in “Australia is a communidy and a land of opportunidy”.

  5. Nicholas Gruen says:


    I don’t generally like stuck up accents, and I think Christopher H’s accent was a bit stuck up, but I must say I agree with you. It was conjoint with his amazing erudition and I enjoyed his accent.

  6. Thomas the Tout says:

    I agree with Nitza. My daughter moved from SA to Sydney for Uni studies, to be asked whether she was English; or where did she come from. Many years ago I visited various work-sites in USA, to be told that I don’t sound like an Australian.

    Referring to Nicholas’s point, I sometimes muse that langauge can be used as a weapon: especially by self-important English types – a very strained accent trying to be uber-home counties; a slow tempo, to occupy more time, and erudite words rather than simple. A display of superiority – but superior in just what?

    An accent is important for multiple reasons – for social cohesion – for history and heritage – for fun (whether it be the joy of prose or poetry or singing) – for clarity; and clarity usually leads us to a mild ‘home counties’ accent. As an example, think of Geoffrey Robertson QC, who in order to be understood by UK Judges modified his accent.

    Some accents are an assault to the ears. The fishwife in the supermarket, in loud voice “Darryl, when we git home I’m gunna give u a bloody hiding an u’ll wish u wuz ded”. The train station announcer; the woman on the loudspeaker at nearby sports carnival “wood all youse who are swimbing next pleez go to the shall-ow end of the poo-ool”.

    Accents can be good, middling, or bad: but usually they are useful

    • Nicholas Gruen says:

      The for the explanation of Geoffery Robertson’s accent – I guess that makes sense.

      I’ve always thought it strange that we stick to our accents. When I’m in the states I say “tomato”, not “tomAto”, and yet if I am in Paris I understand that the word is “tomate”. So if I want to get with the lingo that’s what I say – or try to say.

      But we don’t feel the same way about accents within a unified language. I’ve often wondered why?

      Can anyone help me?

      • Thomas the Tout says:

        Good point. My rationale is that if we are defensive, we stick to ‘our’ accent. But there is a lot to be said for having an ‘accent spectrum’, so that we might better communicate. What does the listener expect of us? When in the US, yield to some of their ways. ( I think it is incorrect to use ‘shipping’ when talking about moving an article, especially by road – but what the heck, go with it).

        But the purpose of talking is to communicate – and sometimes we must translate what we say, or what we hear. I believe that a neutral, clear accent is what we need, plus not pre-judging the other by his accent. “putting on the dog” reduces the speakers ability to communicate; broad twangs do likewise.

        Echoing in our ears are the words of Prof Henry Higgins-
        “the minute one Englishman opens his mouth, another one despises him”
        and Rudyard Kipling ” …or walk with Kings yet not lose the common touch…”.
        Maybe a little acrobatics is required!

      • There are things analogous to ‘accents’ in written languages, for example- ‘organisation’ vs ‘organization’ says something (or other) about where you are coming from.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Notify me of followup comments via e-mail. You can also subscribe without commenting.