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The problem with Southerners May 9, 2010

Posted by Fiona in Big things, Breaking the fourth wall, Durham, Lovely people, Uncategorized.

Ah, sweeping generalisations.  They make the world go round.  Therefore I’m going to add the disclaimer that this is all in my experience, as a Hampshire girl living six months of the year in Durham.  One’s about as south as you can go without hitting the water, the other is fairly close, in the grand design of things, to as far north as you can go without hitting Scotland.  This is about the stereotypes that I’ve heard, and some of the opinions I’ve heard expressed in jest, and in all seriousness.  No, I am not going to tell you which is which.  Yes, these are all gross generalisations, but they are closer to the truth, I think, than maybe it’s PC to expect.

“People in [whichever end of the country I come from] are definitely friendlier.”

“You’re the ones that talk funny!”

These two sentiments are bandied about like nobody’s business at either end of the country.  At home, I get the occasional merciless teasing now for pronouncing Newcastle with a short ‘a’ – something for which I am not apologetic for the same reason that I pronounce ‘chorizo’ with a lisp, as opposed to calling it ‘chorit-so’.  Simply because, if you go to Newcastle, that’s what it’s called.  ‘Newcarrrrr-sle’ simply doesn’t exist.

When I’m up in Durham, I am very conscious of my accent.  I can feel that some of the locals eye me with a bit of suspicion, and some of them (generally men, as it happens – and I’ll get to that, I don’t think it’s a Feminist Statement) talk down to me because of how I speak.  I have a fairly RP accent.  It takes about five seconds for anyone to work out whereabouts in the UK I’m from.  When I’m at home during the holidays, and I use a hard ‘a’ sound as in ‘maths’, as I’ve noticed I start doing when I’m trying to ingratiate myself with someone informally, I get eyebrows raised at me.

Personally, I think people from the south are friendlier to me, but that is because for the 99th percent I sound like them.  However, I have a theory as to why people from the south are perceived by people from the north as less friendly, and the opposite isn’t true to nearly the same extent.

It’s because they, from the south, don’t understand what they, from the north, are saying.

The BBC has always been the ultimate purveyors, if you like, of crisp accents.  The BBC is heard nationwide, by everybody.  Institutions other than the BBC use similar accents, and people who speak with an non-RP accent are very exposed to what an RP accent sounds like, and what an Estuary accent sounds like.  They can understand it, no problem.  It sounds different to them, but not that out of the ordinary.  When I got up to Durham for the first time, it sounds like a bit of a cliché or an exaggeration but I had real problems with the local accent – to the extent that I hid from my cleaners for the first few months to avoid conversation, and tried my utmost to go shopping with friends so I didn’t have to hold my own so much in a concentration.  It’s a fairly thick accent, and asking someone to repeat themselves, especially with my voice, sounds very condescending.  So for a lot of the first few months I don’t doubt that I came across as a bit frosty.

I think people from the south-east, where I’ve grown up, can get a little bit snooty about the accents of people who are not from the south-east, and I think the reason for that is that they have to try that bit harder to tune into other accents, because they don’t hear them so often.  I know I find it a lot easier to cope with now, compared with before, and compared with some of my friends: I’ve had to translate for a few of them before, or carry on a conversation while they’re quiet.   It’s very sad, but I think a lot of the perceived unfriendliness of people who, well, live where I do, comes from the fact that they don’t quite understand what’s being said as easily, and maybe they feel subconsciously a bit defensive because they feel like they have a disadvantage.  If you think about it, it makes sense: accents that are more frequently heard on the BBC: your Thames Estuary, your Edinburgh Scots, your Welsh, your occasional West Country, a lot of people find them easier to understand than for instance your Geordie or Yorkshire.

Which brings me to why County Durham men, particularly, are a little bit condescending towards me.  Really, we have nothing in common at first sight.  I’m a woman.  I’m a lot younger than them.  I’m from the university.  I sound like I’m going to be on the defensive because I speak like I’ve just come from tea with the Queen.  Frankly, I revert to stereotypes a bit when I’m talking to a fair few of them, I’m not surprised they do the same with me, at least then we both know how to act towards each other.  It’s not exactly a brilliant basis for forming a brief but meaningful friendship.

You know, I would like to teach the world to sing, and I would like to be taken seriously the country over.  In the meantime, I will content myself with biting my lip at Southern Fairy jokes and the description of anyone’s accent as Horrible or Harsh or Failing To Enunciate, and just put all my effort into trying to understand what they’re saying.  And if I ask you to repeat yourself, don’t tell anyone, but it means I like you.



1. annadegenhardt - May 10, 2010

My Aunt was at University in Durham for teacher training; she has a story of how she once got on the bus and for some reason had to say the number eight (it was to do with how you bought bus tickets in those days…) and so she said brightly, in her crispest, brightest, best Surrey accent “the numer eyht please”. Blank stare. “Eyht, please.” Blank. “Eyht.” Pause. Anne took a deep breath. “EEEEEyut”: and she was away.

Also, my Dad, being raised a Geordie, can pretty much slip into a newcassle accent whenever he likes. And for some reason I’ve started automatically saying New-CASSle, rather than NewCarstle… Probably I sound like a pretentious arse, but there you go…


2. Lucy - May 10, 2010

I think you’re right – it’s an understanding thing – but it’s not just to do with accents. Culturally, the NE and SE parts of England are a gulf apart as far as I can tell, and as I perceive it, it’s the unwillingness of a lot of the southern students to give anything towards gulfing that cultural difference that causes many of the problems.

– y’know, the ones who never leave the square mile containing the Bailey, and voice their Tory views loudly while having their shirt collars turned up. The ones who in their head view Durham as an outpost of London connected by a train line which magically transports them to and from, and wouldn’t know where Shincliffe or Framwellgate were if they hit ’em round the face. Exactly the same ones who go on about immigrants having to assimilate if they want to live in this country, but refuse to go any stretch of the way to assimilating themselves.

Oh, and as a Midlander, I tend to find the North of England friendlier than the South, even though I can understand what they’re both saying. To generalise hugely, of course.

3. Fiona - May 10, 2010

Do you think they’re a gulf apart? I’m not convinced. I think a fair few people see cultural differences between the NE and SE, but I don’t really see that many of them. Maybe I’m used to them, or maybe I’m still hiding, but politics aside, I’d be hard-pressed to nominate one. I know the people you mean, by southern students, but I don’t think that’s a particularly southern thing to do. (People from Southampton/other places not in Durham, do you find many people trying to treat their uni towns as an extension of their home towns at all?)

It’s like I don’t see that people from the north are more likely to strike up a conversation with you at random – I see very little difference in the extents to which that happens at either end of the country – central London aside. I admit it’s one person’s experience, so I wonder if that makes me The Nutter Who Talks To People On Public Transport. If you don’t know them, after all…

4. Flix - May 10, 2010

I just feel more comfortable around the voices I’ve grown up with. Though, I often find myself adopting other people’s nuances of language when I speak to them. I haven’t really experienced enough of the North to note a difference or hold a valid opinion on the matter, to be honest.


5. Antony Vennard - May 10, 2010

Well… I’ve this to say. I’ve lived in the South West (Wiltshire), the Royal Counties (West Berkshire, formerly just Berkshire). I did a year in Durham. I’ve lived in Manchester and I’ve lived in Lancashire (not in that order) I’ve also visited London a bit, and Yorkshire and have family in the sort-of Midlands. So I’ve been all over.

Generalising massively (as a caveat): I prefer it up north. I find the south to be a little pretentious overall and a little bit commuter-lifestyle-big-front-lawn-office-job. By contrast, I find northerners generally more open/approachable. My accent is definitely RP-like but I pronounce most things in northern style (bath as opposed to barth), so it gives people a real headache to work out where I’m from (intriguingly, my French accent makes the French think I’m Italian…?).

That said, northern communities can seem to me sometimes to be very anti-new, particularly in smaller communities: the “you’re-not-from-around-here” syndrome. If you go out into the sticks where I currently live, you’ll find that. Likewise, the men of Durham act that way.

This is of course a generalisation and I know some lovely southerners and awful northerners.

I don’t think Durham is a south/north clash, mostly. It’s a class clash, between a section of its students who are very well off (collars and Tory views – the “Rah”) and the not so well off locals. As students from backgrounds somewhere in between, you’re either one-of-them or one-of-us and the distinguishing factor is accent, then probably attitude.

I ended up with my cleaners regularly having tea in my room and setting the world to rights, or else on the stairs if they’d brewed up (made a cup of tea) before I got back. Just as well really, they were probably the most helpful people in the place.

6. Fiona - May 10, 2010

Oh yes – by the end of the third term, my cleaner and I had probably declared our opinions on the bookshop and library shelves of the world – when I’d got a bit more atune to what she was saying. It’s really not something I’m proud of, not understanding, or indeed how long it took. The Grey cleaners to a man make the world a better place 🙂

One of the difficulties I have, as someone from the south, is that I know some people automatically write me off a little bit as someone who feels superior, whose Daddy probably owns half of one of the home counties, and who looks down upon council estates with an air of smug nonplussedness. (And then when they find out I knit, all hope of seeing eye to eye is sucked from the world. Joy.) All of this I object to, because I don’t think it’s the person I am and it’s definitely not the person I want to be. I wonder if this is where Flix noticed some sort of antipathy as well. It’s certainly something I’m very conscious of, probably more so at any given moment than the person I’m talking to.

7. hannah - May 11, 2010

I think I’ve mentioned before how I am one of those annoying people who “take on” the accent of whoever I’m talking to. I’m no Joss Stone (I certainly don’t believe I’m that annoying) but it seems like something I can’t quite help. Does anyone else do it?!

I love accents. They’re a rainbow of excitement. [/cheese]

8. Fiona - May 11, 2010

Linguistic housemate does. It’s hilarious. Especially when she’s just got back from France. And, indeed, when she’s spent the holiday at home – she’s the only (relative) northerner in our house and it’s amazing the difference it makes. I suppose it helps her with her languages.

9. Laura - May 11, 2010

Southerners are better because I am one.

Debate closed.

10. Jenny - May 13, 2010

In Sheffield we don’t have a lot of Rahs thankfully so I’ve never really seen to what extent they’re separated off. Weirdly although people think I sound posh most people guess within a few seconds that I’m state educated and don’t in fact own half of Hampshire, for all that when I say ‘gap yah’ and when I say ‘gap year’ the two sound all-but indistinguishable (if you’re in need of a good giggle I’m always happy to demonstrate this).

I do take on certain aspects of accents. So although I don’t say ‘bath’ to rhyme with ‘maths’ I do say ‘bus’ like ‘boohs’, ‘curry’ like ‘coohreh’, etc etc.

I swear I’m going deaf because I have trouble with everyone’s speech at the moment :S but I do know what you mean especially about thick Yorkshire or Geordie accents and I can see why that would make me seem stand-offish (in amongst the many other things that make me seem that way).

And I was in a chip shop the other day and I could have quite happily chatted to the voluminous, over-made-up woman who served me all day long, she was so motherly and friendly and that one encounter really put a smile on my face.

I have to say a lot of this percieved divide strikes me as more of a class thing than an accent thing and there, a lot of the time, I fall between two poles, because I sound very posh, my parents are of the ‘educated classes’, but my background is not massively well-off. That said I went out the other weekend for my friend L’s birthday. Her girlie friends are state-school educated and go to local universities and have all had shop-jobs since they left school, and her guy friends, who I knew already, are my public school lot, and I felt a lot more at home with them and their designer shirts and posh drinks (decent whiskies and good beers) than I did with the girls and their gossip, flirty texting and cocktails.

I do think there is more of a Town v Gown thing in Durham and Oxbridge than there is at most other universities; I haven’t identified anything like the same problems here.

11. JaneR - October 8, 2010

I grew up in the North East and now live in the South East (and have done for nearly half my life!) It is a long time since I lived there so am cautious as it will have changed considerably since I left home (I only go back for visits) but part of the reason I didn’t go back to the NE to work when I finished my degree was the sexism. I work in Surveying and it was apparent when I did my placement year.

So it might not be your accent – more the fact that you are female. (Though I am certain it is different to 20 years ago).

I agree that there are big cultural differences between the North and the South, particularly as I think that Northerners tend to talk a lot!

Fiona - October 8, 2010

I think you’re right, there is a bit of sexism involved. I’m probably not the person to ask, though – I spent a disproportionate amount of time at home over the summer getting condescended to because I’m female (the joys of working on the menswear department of an old-school department store, I think) so I don’t know if that’s a particularly NE thing.

Having said which, my mum grew up near Harrogate and she has said similar things about Yorkshiremen. I do wonder whether there’s still so much in it.

12. Aimee - January 31, 2011

Fiona, I’ve been enjoying reading your blog. I suppose I come for the knitting and stay for the law chatter and linguistic analysis! I enjoyed this post as an American outsider, not having had the pleasure to visit any of the places that produce these accents. I’ve not the ear for subtle (or even some more obvious) distinctions between these accents, and your appraisal of the differences made me laugh. I was reminded of the reaction I inevitably have to the British comedies we get here in the U.S. — if I miss a joke, it’s usually not that I don’t understand the words (although that sometimes happens); it’s that I don’t understand the joke itself! So I was happy that you wrote a bit about the cultural identities of the north and the south. Incidentally — in the U.S., it’s the southerners who are stuck being judged and talked down to because of the southern accent. Northern accents tend to garner more respect. It’s all pretty silly, of course.

Anyway, knitting: I’m aimeehj on Ravelry. Thanks for all the lovely knitting posts and photos.

Fiona - January 31, 2011

This made me smile a lot, thank you 🙂 I’m glad you enjoy my blog! I think it’s really interesting how accent-related differences seem to be something that happen the world over – in America, I’ve heard of the same sort of thing happening in France, in Australia and New Zealand.

Ravelry stalking to commence!

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