“Blaaaddy ‘ell!" It was an exclamation worthy of Danny Dyer in the Queen Vic, but it wasn’t blaring out of a particularly scrappy episode of EastEnders, it was coming from my two-year-old son’s mouth as I attempted to parallel park into a tight space on our street (spoiler alert: it took several attempts).
And it wasn’t the fact that he was swearing that caught me by surprise – although I did make a note to self to start self-editing my speech around him – it’s that it’s now impossible to ignore hard facts. My child is officially ‘A Southerner’.
I was born in Chesterfield in Derbyshire (no, not where they film Hollyoaks, that’s Chester – which is the answer to the question I was most regularly asked during Freshers’ Week). To northerners, Chesterfield is part of the Midlands; to anyone born below Watford, it’s simply ‘the north’. This means that my natural accent is flat vowels, calling people mardy, and a reassuring number of ‘ey up ducks’ when I visit home, even if the edges of my own accent have been rounded off by a couple of decades of moving to different cities before settling in London. (“You sound rate posh, you do,” has been fired my way more than once in the time since leaving home in 1998).
My husband is from Leytonstone (in East London, or simply ‘the south’ to anyone born above Watford). While he’s no Mitchell brother, his natural accent is long vowels and swapping in an ‘f’ for a ‘th’ sound (just one of the reasons my favoured name had we had a girl – Theodora – wasn’t going to work). Yup, we’re potato and pot-ah-to, but so far we haven’t had to call the whole thing off, even if we disagree over the ‘right’ way to pronounce something (it’s my way, obviously).
And then we had a child, and not only did he learn how to talk, with his own voice, but he has his own accent, which doesn’t sound anything like mine. Anyone who has procreated with someone from a different region/country/postcode with a distinct dialect has probably encountered the same situation. “He’s a little Cockney” my northern school friends laugh as though my son is The Artful Dodger. Not quite, but it is a bit weird, hearing a voice that skims more closely to EastEnders than Emmerdale. While he’s not exactly speaking Rhyming Slang, his friends have started having ‘parr-ees’ (parties), he likes ‘every-fing’ and he knows both boys and ‘gels’. I correct the glottal stops (that’s the official name for the mangling of the ‘T’s) like my own mum used to correct my own, but sometimes I wonder if I’m less bothered about him being ‘correct’ and more about the accent those ‘T’s are being dropped in.
So far, he seems to be bi-lingual on the accent front: on alternate nights he’s either having a ‘bath’ or a ‘baaarth’, depending on who’s doing the honours, and he hasn’t started correcting my speech patterns, yet. And it probably won’t be long before he’s deliberately
moulding his accent to mirror his friends – and annoy his parents.
As for where he picked up the swearing, well I would usually get the blame for that (especially when he’s previously witnessed me trying to park the car in a tight space), but aside from the accent, the other very noticeable part of that exclamation was the intonation and the emphasis. It sounded exactly like his East End nan. So that’s one linguistic area I can be pleased he’s not picking up from me.
You can follow Helen on Instagram and Twitter at @itshelenwhitaker and @helbobwhitakerrespectively. Helen’s debut novel, The School Run, about the comic lengths parents will go to for a school place, is out in August 2019.
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