The North-South Divide

I wrote this poem inspired by accents and dialect in Britain and how we make value judgements on the way people talk. I was raised in Northampton but I’ve been told I speak with an accentless accent, known as The Queen’s English (very unNorthamptonian).

We make judgements on people’s education based on how they talk and this poem comes from my many lessons on accents and dialects in my English Language classes at A-Level and Creative Writing degree.

This is also deeply inspired from”Mr Oxford Don” by John Agard and “The Battle of the Library” by Birmingham poet Jasmine Gardosi. Both are excellent works that deserve a watch.

The well-spoken Englishman says –

“East Londoners: prisoners of the gutter, like Oliver Twist condemned for every syllable he utters. Elitists say they deserve to be killed for the remorseless assault on the linguistic guild.”

However, there is nothing wrong with having a regional accent. Posh people hide behind their dictionaries but wasn’t Samuel Johnson from Lichfield, Staffordshire?

Posh people speak well. See they love Oxford and Cambridge. That means rowing and cricket and to like this you must use proper vowels and consonants, enunciated with clarity. They’d prefer to see words laid like bricks, side by side not zig-zagging like the gabbles of Merseyside –

Photographer: Jade Masri

a dialect that claims some space but not too much. Not like the drawls of Glasgow. Then there’s Yorkshire – Catherine Earnshaw, and Heathcliff against the stiff upper lip. Then there’s Derbyshire, and the topsy-turvy free-flowing chatter of Cornwall way down south. Not Ross Poldark, but first-season Demelza, along with du Maurier’s Rebecca and My Cousin Rachel

Shouldn’t we be taking lesson in understanding as many people as we can, not looking down our noses at northern clans, like they’re heathens and their gums are bleedin’ from their teethin’. Let them teethe. Let their voices breathe, and vibrate across landscapes.

Where I went to school, students were taught to speak proper. Properly. What does that mean? The Queen’s English you see. RP. Received Pronunciation where a foot wrong is the ultimate humiliation, English tears run. In America, they don’t care about their assault on the English tongue!

But just when the Oxford Don thinks he’s safe, he catches sight of a Northamptonian. Proper Norfampton. Free of em with a glass o’ wa’er. Now there’s an elephant in the room. I think you mean three and there’s a T in water; you’re crushing this language with pestle and mortar

Photographer: George Hiles

into fine threads like the cotton in Bristol and Manchester. To this Oxford fellow, the further north you go the worse it flows: Bradford, Sheffield, Leeds, Newcastle and – then Scotland. Oh lord, he’s come down in rash ready to fit the entire North in an iron cast.

Up and down we go; and when Britain gives you Wales, you say Gavin & Stacey, sheep and Tom Jones. And when life gives you Toms, it’s time to use your voice, revving like a Spitfire engine – a necessity in every good RP speakers’ composition “and the Welsh have made a mess of English. Some of them even speak WELSH. What are they saying? One language… I don’t know what is. Tis absurd. That’s what it is” says the Oxford don.

They tear apart the Englishman with their words in Roman formation and then tortoise across borders. A textbook manoeuvre. And soon the Irish have joined the fray, sharing common cause with the Welsh. They’re not fans of the English. God knows why.

Their ranks break. It’s St. Patrick’s Day. The Irish have a party – from James Joyce to Saoirse Ronan, the Oxford don begins to cry.

Photographer: Patrick Fore

The way Mr Oxford tries to own the page. Maybe those Englishmen give the English a bad name. Language, it turns out, is for everyone and can be mobilised by poets like John Agard and John Dunne – from Belfast to London – from Cardiff to Glasgow – from Falmouth to Suffolk. And regional accents know how to make words flow like poetry.

The situation has gone to the dogs as the Oxford Don goes to town on the regions. You mean Oxford dons like J.R.R Tolkien who grew up in Birmingham? Brummies! Brummies! Home to great creatives like Julie Walters and Lenny Henry, also many stories about the gentry.

The Regionals ride to war to fight against these language elitist. To not do so would be defeatist. Now I think this is England at its worst, as their tongues draw lines between performance poetry and verse.

A conglomerate of mouth muscles wagging – all shuffling; hustling verbs, nouns and round sounds like the oooo in who and O in got. Now it’s the children from North and the South – words now dog-eared and paper cut, two thirds shorter than they should be.

Photographer: Annie Spratt

Don’t you see, it was a lost cause from the start? Just let them stand in their three-dimensional voices, speaking with their hearts. Their drawls and gabbles. Their nuances and sociolects that shout from the ground. That hound and change into hybrid languages. Let kids be kids. As long as they’re respectful, let them talk how they please.

The letters conjoin. The words morph. Their voices curl and crawl on their hands and knees, free of labels. They learn  for themselves and it seems that language is a wild beast that needs to live its own life. Creating a unique identity one generation at a time.

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