‘Where are you from, sir?’
I have given up saying that I have lived thirty-six of the last forty years of my life in Ireland.
‘England,’ I said.
‘Where in England?’
‘Somerset,’ I said.
Except when I was back in Somerset for four years, the same question was asked. Standing in a classroom in Weston-Super-Mare, I was asked. ‘Where are you from, sir?’
‘I’m from here.’
‘I know you are now, but what about before?’
‘I was born in Taunton, I grew up in Langport, I did my A Levels at Strode College in Street. I’m from here.’
‘But you’re not really from here, sir.’
‘Where am I from, then?’
‘Are you American?’
‘No, I’m definitely not American. I lived in Ireland.’
‘My friend said he thought you were Irish. I thought you were American.’
The bell had gone and the class had moved to their next lesson. The teacher whose room I had occupied had come to set up for the class that was to arrive.
‘One of that class thought I was American,’ I said.
He had laughed, and, in his soft Texas voice, had added, ‘some people think any accent they don’t recognise is American.’
To be honest, the first time I encountered a Dublin accent, when riding on a train through England, I thought it was American.
Except that I don’t have a Dublin accent. A colleague who served with the British forces in Northern Ireland thinks there is an occasional trace of an Ulster accent, but nothing further south.
When I used to make pieces for radio programmes and listened back to them, I was always convinced I had lost little of the West Country burr with which I had grown up. I always imagined that it would not have been a problem to walk into the livestock market or into a village pub and to immediately blend in with the local conversation.
The Somerset accent is one of the regional accents that has withstood the spread of so-called Estuary English. Apparently the flat vowels of the south-east came to Bristol and could go no further, it was something to do with the way particular sounds are formed.
Whilst the Somerset accent has remained in Langport, the dialect has almost disappeared. The local vocabulary has become standardised English. The words may be spoken with an intonation different from that of Estuary English, but they are the same words.
Perhaps it is too late now for me to hope for a recovery of the dialect, perhaps holding onto enough of a burr to appear foreign in Co Meath has been an achievement in itself. My primary school teacher would be delighted that it is many years since I last used the word ‘baint’ to declare unwillingness.
I do hope that the dialect has been recorded, both the sound and by dictionary.
Things like that should not just quietly disappear.
Something such as dialect, a church or chapel, a pub, an architectural feature, even one’s old home, can be accepted as part of your personal landscape and then when your back is turned it can disappear without trace. It saddens one.
Maybe it is a good thing. Memento mori.
There was a lot of work done on the music and stories of our area forty years ago. I can’t find more recent material. Amy Ford was one of our neighbours.
When I was in Russia, the worst insult about my Russian was, “You American?” Above middling was, “Yugoslav?” Greatest compliment was, “Pribaltika?” … meaning Latvia, Lithuania or Estonia. I settled for that.
Some of the Lithuanians at school sound American! (I assume from watching American television)