Lost in translation — navigating  accents in a changing world

Lost in translation — navigating accents in a changing world

WHEN I first started associating with English people I had to translate when my father spoke to them. I’d grown up in a very large Irish community in an immigrant area in an English city and it wasn’t until I went away to a northern English polytechnic that I really got to know English people.

When they met my dad he would speak and they would smile and look worriedly at me and I’d say he’s asking if you want a cup of tea and if you’ve eaten.

He did mumble a little, my father, if I’m being honest but not to the extent that he was unintelligible.

But he did have a very strong Cork accent and it certainly seemed to leave the English a little bewildered as he smiled and joked and welcomed them. It bewildered me at first as I, obviously, understood him easily but I got used to it and it just became part of what I’d do if I brought English people in to the house. Translate for Dad. Mum had her accent too but she seemed to be generally understood — perhaps because she was more clear in her speech, or because she was only 19 when she first came over.

This thing about accents came back to me recently, strangely enough, while I was watching Ryan Tubridy’s appearance in front of a TD’s committee. One of the TDs, Mattie McGrath, was widely mocked for his appearance at the committee.

Now, McGrath’s appearance was worthy of mockery. He is astonishingly incoherent. His questioning was nonsensical and his faux outrage a show for the cameras. He is one of those who would be more than happy for you to think of him as nothing but a fool. And maybe he is and maybe he isn’t. He is, as they say, a cute hoor. What was also in the picture, though, for mockery, was McGrath’s accent.

Now I’m the proud owner of a pretty strong accent, though the years living outside of that accent’s origins have diluted it somewhat. But I still like having it. It tells of my origins, reminds me of who I am, and of where I’ve come from. It is the sound of the English city my Irish parents went to. As an Irishman it is the place of my birth, my rearing , my youth, and an integral part of my identity. I’m a big fan of accents, even my own.

Indeed, his accent is probably the one thing I admire about Mattie McGrath. Yes, the ideas he espouses are nonsensical but he, at least, says them in an authentic accent.

Of course there is a class element to this. Ryan Tubridy, for instance, child of privilege doesn’t just have a neutral accent because he works in the media, he has an accent attached to his class. Don’t you see it everywhere in Ireland or England? The accent of the better off, for want of a better term, does not denote any kind of geographical identity. Their accent is one of class identity. An upper class Irishman doesn’t sound of Cork or Dublin or Limerick. He just sounds of his status. An upper class Englishman doesn’t sound of Birmingham or Leeds or Newcastle. He just sounds of his status.

My own children, born and reared here in Ireland, have a different accent from me and it is an accent that fascinates me. They have a local accent. They have an accent that is sometimes diluted by the English accents of their parents. And they have that strange Americanised bland accent that a whole generation of people seem to have no matter where they come from. An internet accent. A YouTube accent. A movie accent. Whether you come from Cork, Kerry, or Mayo and you’re a certain age you can have an accent like that.

And I wonder if that is the way it’s going. If all our accents are becoming neutralised in favour of a bland, Americanised voice. If the way we speak will tell of what media we ‘consume’ rather than where we come from. If we won’t sound like our surroundings but like our surround-around TV speakers. If anyone will ever have to translate for their dad again because even though he’s speaking the same language there’s a far away wind somewhere blowing through it.