Friday, December 21, 2007

A Class Act

An American woman I know comes up to me: ‘I met this man from Yorkshire’, she says, pronouncing it yawkshiyuh, ‘who thinks you don’t like him because of his accent’.
‘Don’t be silly’, I answer automatically.
We live in a town where almost everyone comes from Somewhere Else. Most people here have different backgrounds, different experiences and, naturally enough, different accents.
We didn’t share the same teachers, mayors, clergy or football teams, things which mark out ordinary communities where you may know what someone thinks or is going to say before he opens his mouth. Here, we are a melting pot of Germans, Spanish, Rumanians, Chinese, Britons, Americans and everything else. We all get along since we are a small community and as long as we can be understood. Communication is everything.
However, unfortunately for the English, who are often monolingual anyway, that's not the case. With the English, accents are everything. To hell with what someone is saying, in a foreign language or in our own. If it sounds wrong then we won't engage.
I have either a ‘middle Atlantic accent’, or ‘no accent at all’ or a ‘fruity la-di-da’ voice depending on who you ask. I’m quite proud of it and my English is easy to understand when talking to practically anybody. BBC stuff. You know.
Particularly when explaining something to a German. Nice and easy, Helmut!
I walked into an Irish bar the other day and ordered a Guinness. IRA songs were playing on the music system. ‘I shot a British soljer’ goes one of them ‘straite between de oiyes’. Lovely. The barman asks how long I’ve been here. ‘Forty years man and boy’, I tell him. ‘Why, sure and you haven’t lost yer accent’, he says.
Another time, I meet somebody: ‘how de do?’ I ask. ‘Oh yuss, ‘ow di doody’, they answer, taking the piss.
George Bernard Shaw said: ‘No sooner does an Englishman open his mouth than another Englishman despises him’. How true. And what a shame. My own feeling is, as long as I can understand what someone is saying, we are moving forward. There are some ugly accents, which are those that sound odd to somebody’s ear. I don’t like such-and-such an accent, and perhaps they don’t like mine.
I speak with German friends, or American friends or what-have-you. The subject doesn’t arise. It’s not a subject which overly concerns the Spanish either. They might think I sound ‘inglés’ when I’m talking in ‘castellano’, but it’s of no consequence.
Curiously, the children here often have more marked regional accents than their parents. How can this be? Shouldn’t all of us, in the decades to come, start to create our own homogenised way of speaking? Shouldn’t we become, eventually, something like the two-language speaking Gibraltarians?
We bring a lot of useless baggage with us when we come to Spain. Discriminations, class, accents, regional ideas and so on. Drop them off at the gate.
We can improve our life here - by getting to know our new area, by voting, learning Spanish, watching local television and adapting ourselves to our new environment; by taking siestas and drinking wine; by knowing our way round our nearby cities and by knowing Spaniards – as well as everyone else who crosses our path. In short, we have the opportunity to become émigrés. Better still - our children have the chance to become 'Europeans'. The alternative to this is to act and consider ourselves as exiles – consuming ‘English’ stuff, reading ‘English’ newspapers and watching SKY (television that deals, of course, with a place where you no longer live). That way, you will miss most of what Spain has to offer.
Next time I see that Yorkshireman, I'll buy him una cerveza...

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