“Ah, from Livarpool, are we?”
“Well, I don’t think you are, mate,” I wanted to say to the upper-class twit in front of me. Unfortunately, I was too shocked to say much, especially as I’d only uttered one word. Disparaging venom dripped from his clipped accent and he creased his forehead in disgust.
“Yeah, I am,” I replied.
“Evidently,” he smirked and turned away without making eye contact.
Good Ol’ Snobbery
This was my introduction to Durham University. The institute where the Oxbridge wannabes and their public school education converge with hopes of gaining a place at an elite English institution. My reasons for being there were rather different. It was sufficiently far enough away from home to feel like I’d moved, plus, I was going out with a lad from Northumberland.
I looked at the university’s representative and let out an exasperated gasp, most likely in a Scouse accent. The Geordie sitting next to me shook her head in disbelief at this pompous twit. We were the only two prospective students there from working-class cities which was obviously good reason to believe we were ignorant, uneducated idiots.
Hold the front page! A northerner applies to a northern university.
“Don’t forget that this evening’s university dinner requires formal attire,” the pretentious prefect added.
“My letter didn’t say anything about formal attire for dinner. I’ve just got my suit for the interview tomorrow,” I whispered to the Newcastle girl.
“What’s that?” Snooty piped up.
“We weren’t told it was a formal dinner.”
He audibly scoffed and looked at the others, “While I realise the letter would have been ambiguous for some of you here, this evening’s dinner does require formal clothing. Failure to comply will result in you not being admitted.”
“It sounds like a mental institution, hope it’s your straight jacket you’ve brought!” I said once out of the prefect’s earshot.
The judgemental attitude towards me in the late ‘90s, aged 18, because of my accent and state school education, was the theme of the day. It was also rather ironic since I was applying to study linguistics and the DNA of the English language. At an interview in the Durham college I’d applied to, the privately schooled Dean asked me how I could afford to study here, coming from Liverpool.
“I ‘ear the hierarchy at Durham earn a mint so I thought I’d nick a few of their cars to sort me out, like. You know, ‘ot wire ‘em and razz ‘em down to a shady mechanic in L8.” Again, I failed to say this, knowing he simply wouldn’t realise it was sarcasm. Or understand a word I’d said. Instead, I replied with a ‘who’s the idiot now?’ expression: “Durham’s in the north east. The prices are the same as in Liverpool, perhaps even cheaper. Besides, unlike those who rely on trust funds from Mummy and Daddy, I’ll support myself with a part-time job.”
I Beg Your Pardon?
It seemed my response was passable for the Dean because I was offered a conditional place. I knew, however, it was only to make up the ‘comprehensive school student numbers’ so the university seemed less elitist. They couldn’t have their institution overrun with people who missed /h/ from the beginnings of words and /g/ from their /ing/, plus /d/ and /t/ falling foul to connected speech, as in, “What did ya say he was doing now?” Good God, what on earth would every other nation that fails to distinguish between upper-class English accents and regional variations think? (Answer: nowt.)
Back at my Merseyside school, I was considered to ‘talk dead posh’. That’s because I was corrected by my Bootle-born-Bootle-raised granddad for slurring my endings, forgetting my ‘g’ on ‘ing’ /ŋ/, for pronouncing H as /haych/ and not /aych/ and for my favourite phrase at the time, “’E’s doin’ me ‘ed in!” (He’s annoying me.) My granddad was of the generation where accents paved your future and “having a strong regional one will do you no favours”. Then Mancunians Mark and Lard joined the airwaves on BBC Radio 1; Scouser Jimmy Tarbuck presented on Radio Merseyside; Ant and Deck proudly paraded the Geordie accent on ITV. The clipped received pronunciation (RP) accent was losing its hold.
Oh My Lord!
Yet last week, in 2021, Lord Digby Jones openly criticised BBC Olympics presenter Alex Scott’s East London pronunciation. Apparently, she had the audacity to miss her /g/ on /ing/ endings. STOP PRESS!
Instead of using his voice to criticise the many issues the UK is facing right now (lack of government leadership over the past 18 months, perhaps?), Jones used his posh voice to belittle the working-class accent of a former England captain. It was way off side. Regional accents and dialects in Britain are what make this country linguistically unique. Head 10 miles down the road and you’ll hear a slight variance.
Today, however, I get a kick out of conversations with the Digby Jonses of the world by telling them a northener has taught English as a foreign language for more than a decade. Their mouths twist and a short scoff escapes their lips, especially when I correct a very, very common mistake, even among RP speakers: “Oh, I’m afraid it isn’t ‘he was sat outside the shop when the car bomb went off’, it’s ‘he was sitting outside the shop when the car bomb went off’. Neither is it ‘who’s this Scouse idiot stood in front of me?’ It’s ‘who’s this Scouse idiot standing in front of me?’ I’m surprised your public school didn’t pull you up on that. Anyway, if you’d like any lessons, just let me know.”
Then I trot off into the sunset ‘oldin’ me ‘ead up ‘igh and smilin’ to meself.
Oh, and just so you know, I never went back to Durham University. However, I read they take regional accents into account now. Apparently.