I was born in Paris, but lived in the Southwest, near Bordeaux in an Italian community that spoke a Neapolitan dialect with a bit of Sicilian and Corsican thrown in. At school our prof was only interested in Shakespeare so when I came to England at the age of 19, well guess what? I could not understand the people around me.
Anyway, determination and utter focussing on my pronunciation (hours in front of the mirror having composed sentences with th) and years later I finally went into nursing. However, it became apparent that something in the way that I spoke was rubbing people’s back up the wrong way. After some illuminating points from my colleagues, I had to change the intonation on some words as I sounded harsh; an intense awareness on my pronunciation got me there. It was the tone in which I said for example: No! I don’t think so. In an English intonation the ‘no’ is soften by elongating it a bit ‘no-o’, and ‘I don’t think so’ both ‘I’ and ‘so’ are lowered in tone so to soften it up.
After many years here, and in some companies the questions about having an accent are interesting: am I Welsh? Scottish? Scandinavian? Or even Dutch. Not one bit of French or Italian!
Interestingly, after lacking contact with the French language for a while, I had to work on my intonation to help me sound French again. Oh! I almost forgot, I have also been told I have a southern English accent; cant hear that!
I am originally from a place that sits between Newcastle, Sunderland, and Gateshead, therefore it’s very difficult to define my accent. Some people from the south, would say it’s Geordie instantly after meeting me. But here’s the thing, if i go to Newcastle, most people with a very strong Geordie accent, insist that i sound like ‘A Mackem’ (Sunderland accent). The interesting part is, when i go to Sunderland, i’m told that i sound like a Geordie. To make matters more complicated, when i went to live and work in Spain, whatever people wanted to class my accent as, didn’t have the same characteristics anyways. After working in Spain, and coming home to the UK, i spoke with a slight Durham twang for some reason. Example: “You’re annoying uz” became “You’re annoying mee”. The mystery of accentism ey!…….
I was attracted to your project by the description in today’s Research Professional. I have been affiliated to [university in Scotland] for some 55 years, with gaps, as undergraduate, postgraduate, academic and emeritus staff. I have also worked in England and abroad. I am a lowland Scot and would consider myself as bilingual in Scots and English. People who spoke Scots, when I was a child, had difficulty in distinguishing between English and educated Scots accents: both were regarded as ‘posh’.
Scottish Universities, and [my university] in particular, have a somewhat different history from English Universities with respect to the influence of accent. When I was a student in the 1960s more than 80% of the student population was Scottish, and a high proportion, like myself, lived with their parents and remained embedded in their local communities. This percentage is still substantial, but is no longer a majority. The same was and is true of the technical, administrative and janitorial staff. In contrast, less than 20% the academic staff were and are from Scotland. In the 1960s most of the remainder were English, with similar backgrounds to the academic staff of non-Oxbridge English Universities. Today the non-Scottish academic staff are cosmopolitan.
I have never been conscious of overt discrimination against students on grounds of accent, although covert discrimination is hard to rule out entirely. However as an undergraduate in a large and faceless Chemistry department, I was very conscious that barriers – lack of personal warmth – between staff and students interfered with the learning process, that these barriers were erected more by the students than by the staff, and that they were distinctly reinforced by the pervasive Scots/English divide in speech.
Later, lecturing in Agricultural Chemistry and then in Environmental Chemistry, these barriers tended to disappear in small-group teaching, and language became a less divisive issue even for my English colleagues. However I did meet one other difficulty. The language in which landscapes and their science is described in the literature is quite formalised, and the formalisation has roots in Oxbridge, or sometimes North American, English. Using that vocabulary created barriers for students who had known their own landscapes from childhood, especially if they came from farming families. When you have always known a peatland as a burn, there is an immediate disconnect when your teacher calls it a stream. I had to work hard with my students to connect what they were taught with what they had always known. My English colleagues could not see that problem. My two sons studied in different colleges of [university in Scotland], and it appears that similar but deeper disconnects arise between scientific English and Gaelic.