I read a story on the BBC website recently about people who had lost fluency in their own language. At first the idea seemed ridiculous, particularly as I work with words. Surely I could never forget what they mean, no matter how embedded in another culture I become?
But even although I have spoken English all my life – a few years at night school practising tortured Spanish aside – it did make me wonder if my travels had had an impact on the way I speak.
I grew up in Scotland, but never considered myself to have a particularly strong accent; not did I use a lot of Scots dialect. So the people in my home town might have had accents broad enough to warrant English subtitles on a film set there, but with the naivety of anyone who had never travelled far, I assumed that I’d always be understood. With a mother from the west of Scotland and a father from the east, I’d never developed the intensely localised vocabulary of either community. I was also a bit of a snob, associating true Scots dialect with the working class of which I was most definitely part, but which I was keen to escape. I remember finding a dialect dictionary in the university library and gleefully searching for the words I’d heard my mum use a million times, but which sounded strange on my own, aspiring middle class lips.
And the evidence that I spoke the Scottish equivalent of the Queen’s English was surely that by the time I was 19, I was writing for a living. I churned out news stories and features for newspapers, interviewing the good and the great and the unlucky and dispossessed. I chattered away to them all at normal (aka breakneck, to the non-Scot) speed, only rephrasing when my questions were clumsy – not because the words couldn’t be understood. My copy was clean and by the time I’d got to newspaper number three, generic enough in language to meet the approval of my English-born editor.
But then my great migration south started. I crossed the border to work as a journalist in Lancashire, and for the first time my language was questioned. No, ‘outwith’ is not a word in England, my news editor told me when I wrote about decisions being outwith the remit of the council. My correct yet accented pronunciation of my maiden name, Cowan, led one confused East Lancs resident to ask if I was ‘Yiddish’ when I rang him about a story. No, I’m not a historic language, I felt like saying, but I felt like I was speaking one at times.
So I slowed my speech, wiped out the words that prompted puzzled looks among my English friends and tried (unsuccessfully) to take the edge off the curly r’s that my (English) radio journalism teacher had told me would have to go if I ever wanted a job in broadcasting. I still sounded Scottish, but it was definitely a milder variety.
It was only a couple of years later, when I went to hear the poet Jackie Kay speak, that I realised just what I’d given away. Her poem, Old Tongue, described precisely my loss.
Listening to her recite the poem, I felt deeply nostalgic for the words I had let slip away. They would never have appeared in my professional writing, and I thought I had only used them occasionally in speech. But they were always there, in the air around me, in my family and in my memories. Just hearing them spoken out loud made me smile: delicious words like ‘dreich’, which sounds exactly like the weather it suggests, and descriptors like ‘eejit’ and ‘heidbanger’, flexible enough to be used as an insult or term of affection. To this day I haven’t found an adequate replacement for that most expressive of labels: glaikit.
As I moved even further south, new words and phrases crept in to replace those that were lost. I still find it hard to get off a bus (or in Melbourne, a tram) without saying ‘Cheers, drive’ in a West Country burr. Here in Australia, I frequently find myself giving a reassuring ‘no worries’. I don’t have an Aussie accent, but I have developed the annoying habit of using a High Rising Terminal – a rising inflection that makes every statement sound like a question. I sometimes try to stop it when I feel it coming on, which makes me sound a bit like an anxious teenage boy whose voice is mid-break.
So I’m still speaking English, but it’s not the English I started out with. Maybe the idea of losing your native language isn’t so ridiculous after all.
Awesome (there’s an Australianism for you) coasters pictured from Kings and Queens.