Stories

Pavlos

I am a second generation Greek Cypriot born in London in 1956 , who speaks English, standard Greek and Greek Cypriot dialect.

My early direct experiences of discrimination were institutional. Despite the fact that bilingualism was discouraged by the education system in the 60s, my parents defied the of views of my teachers and sent me to Greek evening classes at the local church. Despite all obstacles and the possibility of being mildly dyslexic, I still managed to get a good enough education that included a degree in history and sociology. My bilingualism has also shaped who I am, in terms of not accepting the values of a monolithic culture as the gospel truth.

Along with the institutional racism, came the derogatory language from the white community of Camden Town in the 60s. Shouting terms like “bubble bubble Greeks are trouble” in front of us was common practice.

I sometimes confuse my Cypriot dialect/accent (spoken at home) with my standard Greek (learnt at Greek school). Although I loved my holidays in Greece during my youth, I was often patronized and laughed at for speaking like a peasant. I stress that did not just happen when I mistakenly used a Cypriot dialect term. When I said the correct  words and grammar in standard Greek, I still had a touch of a Cypriot accent, which was still laughed at. This caused a barrier in terms of me embracing my Greek identity.  Half of Greece seemed to love me for being from the sister country, whilst the other half made me a laughing stock. My first trip to Greece was when I was 17 in August 1974. At the time Turkey invaded Cyprus, after a Greek military junta in Cyprus. Athenians got heated with me as they thought I was expecting Greece to fight a war for us. I’d get equally heated about the injustices of the Greek military junta that triggered the Turkish invasion. I associated Greek identity with the fascist movements wanting union with Greece. The prejudices I experienced around accent and dialect were therefore connected to this broader sociopolitical context that alienated me from a Greek identity.

In the UK we Greekify some words and call this Gringlish. Bus becomes ‘buso’, market becomes ‘marketa’ etc. Inevitably, I have also been accused of being the village idiot in Cyprus for speaking Gringlish. I feel that prejudice in language was connected to prejudice of the ‘other’, of anything deviating from the norm of traditional Cypriot society. It wasn’t just my language, but the fact that I looked a bit like a hippy and wore an earring in the 70s (which was unheard of for a man in Cyprus), created a whole package for targeted prejudice against me.

The other form of prejudice was within the UK London Cypriot community. Although my parents spoke to us in a Cypriot dialect, it was considered a soft dialect (especially that of my mother who came from Nicosia, the capital). For example, it was looked down upon to use the heavier words  ‘εγωνι’ as opposed to ‘εγώ’ for ‘I’. These rules were not written down, but they were informally ingrained in the social hierarchy. (Thinking about it, the prejudices got ingrained in my psyche too and i would also look down upon people who used the heavier Cypriot terms like εγιωνι).

The combination of prejudice amongst UK institutions, indigenous British people, Greeks in Greece, Greeks in Cyprus and Greek Cypriots in London inevitably made me perceive my Greek heritage negatively. The fact that I  also perceived Greek  culture as narrow minded, misogynistic, racist, homophobic etc also contributed to my negative perceptions.

It was therefore an upward struggle for me to find a Greek identity through a cultural sphere (eg enjoying Greek music, food, hospitality, meeting more open minded Greeks in more recent years).  Code switching between English, Greek Cypriot dialect, standard Greek and all the accents deliberately using the terms with irony amongst my Cypriot peers in London, also helped towards creating a specifically London based Cypriot identity. We would use code switching as both an affectionate tribute to the positive aspects of the Greek culture, whilst satirising the negatives. (All this was beautifully embraced by the great comic duo of the 80s Donna and Kebab.) In effect we kind of created a culture that defied the accentism and other prejudices we experienced.

Belinda

I know lots of people on here might think this is ridiculous, but I was badly bullied at school for sounding ‘posh’. Do, next time you think an RP accent is a privilege and a ticket, think again. It made me miserable.

Nicola

Whilst doing my teacher training, the lead lecturer suggested that I attend lessons so I wouldn’t speak with a Yorkshire accent. I didn’t.

Sharon

I went to Oxford university in the 90s from a state comp in the home counties. I had never really met anyone who had a different accent from my own so (like many people, I now know), assumed I had ‘no accent’. As soon as I arrived there, I was ridiculed for my accent and told I was an ‘Essex girl’ by my mainly middle class privately and grammar-educated peers (actually I spoke something like Estuary English, I guess). I remember sitting next to a professor one evening who expressed amazement to meet someone with a regional southern accent at dinner. I was told that it was sad that I sounded so awful in English while my French accent was beautiful (I was studying languages). This deeply affected me and I gradually began cleansing my speech and assimilating. It makes me sad that I felt that I had to do that. I now sound just like those people who ridiculed me. I had a couple of friends (also from comps), who did not lose their regional accents and continued to be victimised. Interestingly, it seemed to be better for people with Welsh or Scottish accents which were somehow classless.

Lisa

Mine started a long time ago. When I started at Oxford in the late 80s someone told me, ‘You can’t possibly be studying English at Oxford with an accent like that!’ This came hot on the heels of a teacher at a study week telling me ‘The northern accent is generally associated with being thick.’ I now teach on the outskirts of Birmingham and it’s lovely listening to some of my A level language students who are really proud of their accent despite the prejudice they encounter. Same kind of things I was getting back then.

Bradley

Spent dinner defending my little brother’s “incorrect” use of th-fronting. My parents would make excellent descriptivist linguists, it’s not their fault though, they “just want him to speak properly”.

Sid

Talking to a hiring manager…You say you’re a Native British Language teacher and student of Linguistics, “how come you don’t sound British”

Karolina

I recently taught a class observed by half a dozen teacher trainees – a regular occurrence, as I’m one of the more qualified and experienced staff at my place of work. Afterwards I welcomed questions from the trainees, the first of which was “Where did you learn to speak English so well? You can hardly tell you’re not from here, well done.” I wish I could say it was the first time someone has congratulated me on not sounding like where I come from, as if it was my biggest life achievement. I’m Polish by birth but have been speaking English since preschool and living in the UK for over a decade. I’m so fed up with the “where are you from” questions that unless I risk being rude, I avoid giving a direct answer. I also tell my students their accent is their identity and they should be proud of it.

Senga

Early in the millennium, when  voice-recognition technology was still immature, my employer (in TV post-production) aptitude-tested two dozen volunteers to produce texts from TV —  a bit like simultaneous translation, but speaking all the parts in a drama or debate, including punctuation, and editing slightly as you go — all whilst listening to the next part. That’s the tricky bit, like rubbing your tum while patting your head.

This was just a new production method for a job we were all experienced at.

When managers emailed us the result of the aptitude testing — the names of six selected for training — I was out of the room. I returned to find a whole chain of comments between a clique of colleagues: as well as adding their own group to the address line,  someone had hit reply-all anyway, and everyone on shift at that moment got it. Several more emails from friends went “Quick! Archive your emails now, before you read anything!”

These cliques were the same people who had managed to leave several desktop computers in our hot-desk workplace permanently signed in to their messaging app, so it wasn’t a surprising blunder, and nor was the indignant “OMG!!!” response to my being selected  much of a shock: I knew they disliked me as a person. But the blatancy of their snobbery was an eye opener.

They were outraged that someone  with speech as “common” and “gutteral” (pun intended) as mine could have been considered adequate at all to use voice-recognition software, and stated that they were stunned that I’d been put forward ahead of most of them. They literally were disbelieving that I could’ve passed at all.  Especially since the test had been administered and scored by people who came up from London. The clique were anticipating a great denouement, when the voice-recognition software would melt down on contact with my “terrible” accent.

I have a bog-standard west-of-Scotland accent — a range of registers, like most people in the surrounding conurbation, but defaulting to working-class rather than  the “well-spoken” or “telephone voice” that schoolteachers used to try to scold us all into. I speak like most of the population here, and like most of the clique’s own parents and many of their friends. But in our workplace, as in most big organisations in Scotland, it’s the accent of the majority of security guards, canteen staff, cleaners, maintenance crews…but few of the people they maintain.

We had all been briefed on the nature of the output software  that those who “went forward” would be using —  you would build up a corpus of your own speech through example and correction to make a “model” for the voice software to recognise your own voice. All that matters is that your diction is acoustically distinct.

Handily, the standard working class west of Scotland accent has fully-sounded (guttural, if you like) consonants and more vowels than Standard English. Wales and whales are quite distinct; so are eyes/ice, boot/boat, four/for, and or/oar/awe. “Girls” is a diphthong and can’t be misheard as gulls, gills or gales. And for homophones, the Scottish teacher’s-bane  childhood accent easily distinguishes they’re from their (thur) and there (thai-ur).

The weird thing is that, of all people, my colleagues were educationally and occupationally selected to know all this better than just about anyone who doesn’t actually work as a linguist:  but even months later, they still seemed mystified that “the  machine” discriminates acoustically, not socially.

When two of the clique started their training a few weeks after me, (yes, one was the instigator of the OMG slag-fest) both had more problems than almost anyone with getting consistent voice-recognition. When you are under pressure,  or tired, or unselfconscious,  your speech tends to revert to what is most ingrained — the speech you first learned.  Both individuals had been through years of elocution lessons in their teenage years. Each would teach the machine a beautifully modulated exemplar in their acquired pronunciation, and as the situation got more demanding — eventually live on-air — it would  broaden into speech that most people from outside Scotland wouldn’t be able to tell from my own “dreadful” accent. But they hadn’t taught that to their voice-recognition software. They weren’t hearing it themselves.

My revenge was to be as helpful as possible. (I never mentioned that email, though some other colleague surely must have at sometime.) Several people, including me, did try to explain that you have to be “honest” with the software, but these two continued to have a hard time with it.

More distinctly-enunciated consonants. No intrusive-R or missing R. At least two sets of vowel distinctions not in Standard British English. Plenty of acoustically distinct sounds for the software to latch onto: that’s my accent. From what I hear, over a decade later, Siri and Alexa still can’t cope with un-anglicised Scottish or Irish speech. That can only be because we’re literally not worth hearing.

Edith

Austrian student about a fellow student: ‘She is Austrian and she has lived in Germany for a long time, so she sounds very German German, BUT she is nice’.