My son doesn’t have an accent. I mean, he does, but not one I can distinguish yet. When he calls eggs ‘eeegs’, it reveals little about his Hackney upbringing, and I am still trying to pin down the thousand meanings of his favourite placeholder, ‘deeto deeto’, which has no cultural or linguistic precedent I can identify.
A few Irish people asked if I’d ‘mind’ him having an English accent, in that ‘not that there’s anything wrong with it’ tone which suggests there is, actually, something wrong with it; the way someone might inquire about the prospects of your toddler getting an Arsenal face tattoo. Since he’s being raised in England, I tell them, he will obviously have an English accent, and quite soon. This won’t bother me at all, but it did get me thinking about the accent neuroses I do have.
I’ve lost my accent, and it hurts a bit. The words themselves are unmistakably Derry – with a charm that never fades, my distinctive ‘houuw, nouuw, brouuwn, couuw’ sounds are repeated back to me by non-Northern Irish people quite regularly – but the distinctive Derry singsong has been smudged like that Spanish fresco of a pensive Christ, and is now a shapeless, shameful blob.
For me, the problem was speed. A lot of Irish dialects are fast, but Derry people speak like our teeth are on fire. I didn’t realise this until I moved to Dublin for university, and was constantly asked to slow down. This allowed foreign tones to breach my mouth, turning my once proud lilt into a mottled mongrel tongue of middle-Irishness, neither fish nor fouuuwl.
It comes back after a few days at home, or even over a long phone call. But, shamefully, I’ve been known to force it. Derry taxi drivers often mistake me for a southerner, and pleasantly ask if I’m enjoying my stay in their city. When I reply that I was born and raised in Derry, they’ve barely had time to say, ‘Ye don’t soun’ like it,’ before my speech is stuffed with a stream of local idioms that reveal me as the performative try-hard that I am. This is mortifying, but has the rare benefit of silencing a Derry taxi driver, a feat nearly impossible feat by other means. Instead, they adopt the pitying quiet of an Italian waiter, stoically enduring my attempt to say ‘bucatini all’Amatriciana’ for the third time.
It’s hard to know why accent changes are embarrassing, but they are. My own experience hasn’t even given me a tolerance for it in others. When a US-based friend returns with an American twang, I judge them for it, even though I know that no one, other than hospital radio DJs or Elon Musk, would ever do it deliberately. The best we can hope is that we invent our own entirely new accent that no one has ever had before, the way Liam Neeson went from Ballymena to LA and ended up sounding like a snooker commentator from Venus.
It’s either that or I move us to Italy and wipe the slate clean with new accents for the whole family. At least then the boy can order the food. Tell him I’ll have the bucatini all’Amatriciana, if he’s asking.
Follow Séamas on Twitter @shockproofbeats