Saturday, March 14, 2009

English and Inheritance

I don't write like my mother, but for many years I spoke like her, and her particular, timorous relationship with language has shaped my own. There are people who move confidently within their own horizons of speech; whether it is cockney, estuary, RP or valley girl, they stride with the unselfconscious ease of a landowner on his own turf. My mother, Rose, was never like that. She never owned the language she spoke. Her displacement within the intricacies of English class, and the uncertainty that went with it, taught her to regard language as something that might go off in her face, like a letter bomb. A word bomb. I've inherited her wariness, or more accurately, I learnt it as a child. I used to think I would have to spend a lifetime shaking it off. Now I know that's impossible, and unnecessary, and that you have to work with what you've got.
As a working-class refugee in a posh girl's grammar school, burdened with my parents shortened vowel sounds and North Midlands dialect words (and yes, it also took me time to learn that you don't say skelington and chimley!) I can completely identify with Ian McEwan's struggles with the English language which he describes in The Times.

It's not only non-native speakers who have to wrestle with it, y'know!

8 comments:

Michelle said...

Thanks for this post! Being a Malaysian has been a challenge where language is concerned. I'm a speaker of all 3 languages (Eng, BM and Cantonese) but a native of none. I love language and English is my utmost favourite but I've always been inferior of my ability in grasping the language. So it's really nice to know to that I'm not the only one and that even native speakers sometimes find it a struggle too.

Drachen said...

We know. We watched My Fair Lady. :-)

bibliobibuli said...

yes. a class thing. a regional thing. i said "bath" not "baath", "garidge" and not "garaage", referred to the midday meal as "dinner" and the evening meal as "tea", "mashed" tea instead of brewing it ... small things but kids bully you for difference. i had to struggle with bad spelling too and think i may be mildly dyslexic.

Drachen said...

Can Henry Higgins really tell which little English district you're from just by your accent?

bibliobibuli said...

these days i think it is much harder because the effects of "estuary english" i.e. the variation spoken in the south of england, which has spread so widely thanks to TV. i am sure that in days of yore it was indeed possible for someone with a highly trained ear to pick up small differences.

Drachen said...

In one of Ian Rankin's books, his Scottish detective was in London to tackle a case when he suddenly realised that his English counterpart could not understand a word he was saying! I find that funny and enlightening.

bibliobibuli said...

Drachen - i hate to admit it but i've had problems with british regional accents. i lived in birmingham for many years, but a move a couple of miles up the road into the black country also put me among folks i couldn't understand for love or money. and at one point i had a Glaswegian boyfriend with a very thick accent so i only understood maybe one sentence in two ...

The Siege Malvar said...

thanks for this, Sharon! Very interesting. I like the bit where he said "you have to work with what you've got".