What are they on about?

25th February 2000 at 00:00
David Newnham blends in with the background accent.

I've just been doing it again. Sorry if that makes me a loathsome little creep, but I can't help myself.

All the plumber did was look up from his plumbing. "Jew wanna coffee or sunnink?" I heard myself saying. He did. Milk and three sugars too.

So what's all this "sunnink" business? I don't speak like that. Or do I? It's hard to be certain these days.

In truth, my accent bends and flexes with every passing breeze. I have become an oral chameleon. Sit me in front of my GP and I'll enunciate like Julie Andrews. Sit me behind a cabbie and I'm all "innits" and "wouldjas".

The real me? He was last seen in satchel and blazer, trying to persuade kids from the secondary modern that he wasn't posh really.

So it's cowardice that makes me imitate the people around me? Come outside and say that. I'll . . . well, I'll probably agree with you, actually. But it's not just me, you know. There are millions of us out here. If you haven't spotted us, it's because we always speak like you. Why would you suspect? You're not Henry Higgins.

Rmember Henry? He had a wonderful line in My Fair Lady, half spoken and half sung by Rex Harrison: "The Englishman's way of speaking entirely classifies him. He cannot open his mouth without some other Englishman despising him." Henry called it "verbal class distinction", and he was dead right.

We are divided into warring factions, and no amount of Estuary English will heal the rifts. So you can either do the verbal equivalent of wearing tweeds to a soccer match and a shell suit to polo, or you can blend and bow a little.

It's not for everybody, of course. We've all met the type who wears his tweeds with pride. "Oh, come along my good man," he tells the dawdling petrol pump attendant. The term "cringe-making" fits him like a calf-skin driving glove.

And then there are those who don't have an ear for accents. "Is Brian Sewell posh? I thought he was Irish." These poor souls can no more mimic than fly. They have no choice but to speak in the tongue that the good Lord gave them. I envy them in a funny sort of way. Perhaps I should try to be more like them.

Oops! There I go again.

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