OPINION - Britain would be dull if my London accent wipes out all of the others

 (Tomiwa Owolade)
(Tomiwa Owolade)

By the end of this century, the slang I grew up speaking in my little pocket of inner-London with my mates will be the dominant dialect of Britain. According to Matt Gardner, a professor of linguistics at Oxford, Multicultural London English (MLE), will eventually rule the roost. MLE is a mixture of Jamaican, African, Asian and Cockney influences. Words like “peng” and “bare” will soon be part of the normal vocabulary up and down this green and pleasant land.

This is not surprising. The way we speak never stands still. When reading or watching a Shakespeare play, we need to adjust ourselves for his English. The Liverpool Scouse accent, one of the most distinctive in this country, emerged in the 19th century under the influence of Irish immigrants.

Change is the norm, but if the dominance of MLE plays some role in reducing the range of dialects spoken in Britain, I will feel a pang of sadness, as though something has been lost. The way we speak relates to geography, culture and class. The Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw famously said “it is impossible for an Englishman to open his mouth without making some other Englishman despise him”.

Accents are often used to mark someone as either clever or thick. This is what Robert McKenzie and Andrew McNeill, of Northumbria University, found in their study of accent bias, which will be released in full next week. As McKenzie told The Guardian, “people do think speakers in the north of England are less intelligent, less ambitious, less educated and so on, solely from the way they speak”.

Accent bias is another way for posh people in southern England to discriminate against the neglected North. It reflects regional inequalities. Even controlling for class, for instance, people in the North are more disadvantaged. According to the Children’s Commissioner for England, pupils on free school meals in London are twice as likely to attend university as those pupils in the North. But condemning accent bias shouldn’t simply be about class and regional inequalities. Accent diversity ought to be cherished.

When we think of diversity, we often think of ethnicity and religion. But Britain has also been powerfully diverse in its variety of accents. As Joan Washington, the accent coach and late wife of actor Richard E Grant, put it: “It seems to me that landscape has something to do with the tune of an accent. It certainly feels true that the flatter the landscape, the flatter the accent.” She contrasts flat tones of an East Anglian accent, and how that mirrors the flatness of that region, with the lolling intonation of an accent from the Valleys in south Wales. 

We don’t all speak the same, and this is a good thing. Locality can be as enriching as cosmopolitanism. John Clare, the magnificent Romantic poet from Northampton, once said: “I could not fancy England larger than the part I knew.” A study by HSBC, however, claims that many northern accents could be wiped out by 2066. This is because of our greater interaction with voice recognition technology, and the fact that such technologies have a bias towards southern forms of English.

I love the fact that a dialect that emerged as a consequence of London’s immigrant communities will soon become mainstream but it will be sadly ironic if this is at the expense of Britain’s various regional accents — accents that have often been denigrated by the elite, but which have vividly furnished the cultural landscape of this country like our greatest works of natural beauty.

In other news...

To promote his documentary on Black Caribbean culture in Britain, Sir Lenny Henry said this in a Radio Times interview: “It’s interesting to watch Glastonbury and look at the audience and not see any black people there.” Going to Glastonbury? Haven’t we black people suffered enough?

It’s not “interesting” why black people don’t trek to this festival in Somerset: the only reason black people would pay money to camp in the English countryside would be if religion is involved. Sir Lenny, we love you, but leave us out of this one.