Moving from Australia to London in 1979 wasn’t as great as I’d expected it to be. In fact, it turned out to be an enormous culture shock. The roads weren’t paved with gold at all; society wasn’t as sophisticated as people made it out to be, the weather didn’t agree with me one bit, and above all, the people weren’t as friendly as the people in Australia. England seemed so backward to me, that for all I knew, I could just as well have landed on the moon.
On my first day at school, I was shocked by the big city arrogance and ignorance of some of the pupils and teachers there. Many of the kids made fun of my Aussie accent – a very light one, mind you – and even tried to copy it. Sure, that kind of behaviour is common wherever you go, but it felt ironic that people speaking English with a Cockney accent had the audacity to ridicule another accent and to condescend to someone from a former British colony. The latter being Australia, a well-developed and, at the time, upcoming young nation that was far more advanced, open-minded and progressive than ‘Mother England’.
Anyway, being the easy-going and adaptive bloke I am, I did my best to fit in. However, I must admit I failed hopelessly, and in the five years that I spent living in London, I never really managed to feel at home. If anything, the first couple of years found me feeling lonely and longing for ‘home’. There was one thing though, that I got used to very quickly. After a week or so at Crown Woods School in South East London, and to my dad’s dismay, my brothers and I were already beginning to speak with a Cockney accent. To outsiders, this accent – probably the ugliest accent on the planet – as well as its vocabulary and idiom may sound very similar to the Australian accent. They do share some similarities but are also very different.
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To me the main differences are: (a) Cockney is guttural whereas Australian is nasal, and (b) Cockney is delivered with an aggressive staccato while Australian is spoken with as little effort as possible. The latter is said to have originated in the early days when pioneers could not afford to waste energy talking in such a hot climate, and because opening your mouth only a little bit meant you stood less chance of letting the blowies (blowflies) in. This goes to show that environments, living conditions and culture can impact language. Where and how people live is reflected in their speech.
I was born in Norway, moved to an American mining town in Chile when I was one, and spent most of my youth in Australia and England. Because of this, I now have a cocktail of accents and expressions: mainly Australian and Cockney, with some ‘neutral English’ thrown in for good measure. This is a bit strange when you think about it, because I learned to speak English in Chile at the age of three, from an American kindergarten teacher. So, it would be logical for me to throw in some American also.
Well, maybe my accent doesn’t have a hint of American but my use of grammar was greatly influenced by so-called ‘American English’. In Holland, many people I speak to on the subject of the English language, believe that Americans – and Australians and other ex-colonials, for that matter – have a poorer comprehension of the English language and speak a more modern and slangy derivative type of English. It’s not realistic to generalize in this way. Nationality doesn’t determine people’s language skills, and neither Americans nor Brits speak better English.
From experience though, I believe American English to be purer. On the whole, Americans tend to be more consistent and stick to the original spelling of English words. For instance, they use the letter ‘z’ in words that originate from French and Latin, like ‘organize’ and ‘realize’, whereas the English use both the letter ‘z’ and the letter ‘s’. Also, for example in movies, it is more common to hear Americans use the subjective personal pronoun, instead of the more modern and popular objective personal pronoun. For example: “Yes, this is she (speaking),” as opposed to “Yes this is her (speaking),” and “so do I,” instead of “me too.” This is where my English belies its American roots.
Speaking of roots, what I like about accents and dialects is that they tell you something about the people who use them and their origins. I wouldn’t go as far as to claim that we are defined by the language we speak, but it most certainly characterizes us. And, I’ll certainly give Cockneys credit for one thing, and that is their articulateness and creativity in constantly finding new words, phrases and expressions. It makes them very authentic. It’s this authenticity that I appreciate in a person’s speech. So, when foreigners speak English in the same way they speak their own language, it gives me a chance to relate to whom they really are.
Cockney Rhyming Slang
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This is why I think it’s such a shame when people try to adopt an accent they’re not really familiar with. I experienced a good example of this last year, when my partner and I accompanied her daughter to several universities in Holland to get some information on courses that she was thinking of taking. These courses were given in English, and so, the second-year students and the lecturers and deans who gave the presentations spoke in English.
What struck me was that most of them tried to pull off an American accent, which was a pity, because it was so obvious that they were imitating an American accent and not speaking with an American accent. Also, their grammar, their word choice and the way they stressed syllables were clearly Dutch. In a matter of minutes, they managed to flush their linguistic authenticity right down the proverbial toilet. So, it came as a pleasant surprise that one dean gave her presentation speaking with a thick Dutch accent. This lady spoke fluent and grammatically correct English in her own way. Okay, she expressed herself in a Dutch way and her English certainly didn’t sound native, but at least it was very authentic, and I really appreciated that.
There are so many different English accents - at least one for every state in the U.S. alone – and everyone has their own personal accent and way of expressing themselves. I love speaking to people and listening to them. Not just to their words and accents, but to the feeling they put into it as well. This is what makes it possible for me to connect. It’s with much affection that my brothers and I often recall our mum’s pronunciation of ‘fish and chips’ in her own special way: ‘fizz and ships’. Even though we used to tell her this was Dutch, she still kept pronouncing it in this way. That was what made her feel so personal and unique, in the same way my way of talking when I arrived in England made me feel so unique.
This leads me to the question: What’s wrong with having an Australian accent, anyway? Or a Dutch one for that matter? Well, absolutely nothing. I love the Australian accent and hearing it always fills my heart with such a warm feeling of home. Australia is home to some magnificent diamonds – both people and rocks – and that’s why my rough little mix of accents feels so good. It reminds me of who I am – a bitsa or Heinz57 (Aussie words for mongrel) – and helps me to express myself to the full, so that this little diamond in the rough will shine bright like a diamond too.
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