Emma Samms: Speaking in tongues
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‘Be careful what you say. Your accent and vocabulary says more about you than you think.’
Last week I was trying to describe to an American friend of mine the difference between a Gloucester accent and a Birmingham accent. Not being very skilled at accents I resorted to saying "They're just completely different, trust me." "But these two places are a long way apart?" my friend asked and I had to respond, "Well, no, only about 50 miles." It struck me that it was actually quite remarkable that despite modern ease of travel, modern methods of communication and despite the unrelenting access of American television into all of our households that regional accents are still a thing at all.
Linguistic experts can tell from the way that you talk where you are from and if you've spent time in any other regions or countries. Sometimes they can hear three or four different clues to your life history in one spoken sentence. But accents aren't the only evidence of our backgrounds that we reveal when we speak; very often it's expressions we use that are most revelatory.
My father's short stint in the military was evidenced by his instructions to his family to be "On parade" at a certain hour of the day, and when I told my children that they needed to be ready to leave the house in ten minutes, I'd announce "Ten minutes, Ladies and Gentlemen, ten minutes", as we all heard over the tannoy when I was working in theatres and they were hanging out with me in my dressing room.
I use the expression "Take two' when I have to repeat something, revealing my time on film sets and likewise, if something needs to be moved just a little bit, I'll use the term "A scoshe". This apparently is a derivation of the Japanese word "sukoshi" meaning "a tiny bit", but I've ever only heard used by film crews.
Some expressions are unique to families. When I was growing up we had the usual selection of tea and coffee mugs in our kitchen, the largest of which were a couple of highly decorated mugs that had been brought over from Norway as a gift from an ex au pair girl. When asked the uniquely British question of "what mug do you want?" (We all know how important it is to have the right mug), the response of "Norwegian" meant "largest possible". The use of this word evolved into other areas. One could ask for a Norwegian size portion of chips, or a Norwegian size birthday party. This does a slight disservice to the country of Norway as neither its country or population or indeed their proportions are in any way large.
Interestingly, this expression has now evolved after finding one of these mugs in my mother's attic. My siblings and I were shocked to discover that mugs are clearly a lot bigger now than they were in the 1970's and the legendarily large Norwegian mugs would now be considered average sized at best. So, in my family, "Norwegian" now refers to something that we used to think was big, but we now realise is actually quite small. A niche expression, to be sure.
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To anyone reading this and shouting "Wagon wheel", I say yes. There is nothing more Norwegian than a wagon wheel biscuit.
When my youngest brother was an infant he had his own language. I happily embraced this, as did his other two siblings and we spoke to him in his own language with great enthusiasm. Probably not something encouraged by child development experts, but great fun, all the same. I think he's probably forgotten it all by now, but I certainly remember that "eelah" was "helicopter" and "lorry" was "clllrrrrr".
My son, a huge fan of 'Thomas the Tank Engine' when he was young, found it hard to pronounce "The Fat Controller", one of the show's main characters, so that name became "Tonka Tonka". I must say, it's quite useful these days, when a discrete put-down is required, to be able to describe someone as "a bit of a Tonka Tonka".
So open your mouth at your peril. Not only will someone be able to tell if you're from Gloucester or Birmingham but they may also know where else you've lived and what you did there. They might even know which family you're from.