Last December when I had my phone interview for Oxford, the British accents from the three academics on the other end of the line – so far away in this magical, unreal city that rained books and fellowships – the contrasts between their voices (which seemed to me like the poshest of posh Oxbridge accents) and the voices I heard every day in the bookstore (on the bus, on the streets, in my apartment) made the event even more surreal and unnerving.
It was only after weathering the first few days here that my ear began to pick up the nuances. My tutor now had an unmistakeably Scottish coloring in his voice.
The system is far more developed than I (should have) realized. I have very little idea what makes a Newcastle accent different from a Nottingham accent (if there is a difference). The different shades of Londonish don’t tell me who is from Croydon and who is from Hampstead (again, if there is a difference, and I think there is). I can tell the difference between Irish and Scot (thanks in part to my friend G and that academy award winning film Leap Year and Matthew Goode’s ‘Trow it in the wash an that’ll be grand’), but can’t articulate the difference between Brummie (Birmingham dialect) and Scouse (Liverpool). To carry on the Harry Potter references, I’ve been told that Hagrid is not North England, as I anticipated, but very likely some version of Somerset (or summer-sayt).
Today in Dr. Helen Barr’s lecture on reading verse (or perhaps, as she said, sounding verse), she mentioned the Leeds-born poet Tony Harrison, who is a example of someone with a bifurcated tongue: who grew up in a particular social environment, but was well-educated. As a result, Harris had to speak two languages, and writes about and within this peculiar form of dislocation. He intentionality uses rhyme to subvert – in his poem 'Book Ends', his rhymes privilege the North English accent and ‘lock’, as Dr. Barr said, the privileged tongues out.
Of course there is the typical Oxford rah. I went to attend a history society at Christ Church at the beginning of term, and – big surprise, no conforming to stereotypes here – I have never seen such a collection of peacockish old fogeys in my life. The tweed blazars, beardless faces and heavy-rimmed glasses (all carefully stylized to look Auden-and-Larkin-esque) have not been seen in such profusion since 1968. If you thought the Oxbridge accent was satirical it’s not. “Oh you,” said someone in a starched shirt as I was swept from my conversational partner, “I simply have someone I must introduce to you.”