Sunday, 20 March 2016

My German accent

Yesterday I met up with Angie at Miserden for a Cotswolds walk inspired by the last novel in the Cadfael series written by Ellis Peters (the historian Edith Pargeter).

This is the book set in 1145, in which Cadfael goes AWOL from Shrewsbury Abbey in order to rescue his cherished son Olivier. Olivier was conceived in Palestine after Cadfael fought in the First Crusade, long before he ever thought of becoming a Benedictine monk. For most of his life Cadfael was quite unaware that he was a father, discovering the fact only six years previously, when already in his late fifties, and Olivier already a young man in service to a nobleman, Robert of Gloucester. This makes their relationship special, of course, and as soon as he hears that Olivier is incarcerated, Cadfael knows he must do something about it, even if he must break his vows to not stray from the Abbey without the abbot's express leave, which he does not give. Doing his own thing may lead to Cadfael never being able to return to the Abbey, which would be a disaster. But Olivier's whereabouts must be discovered, and his release obtained.

The background to this is that the civil war between King Stephen and the Empress Matilda is still rumbling on, with Olivier on her side because Robert of Gloucester is. Olivier finds himself in a castle under siege, but when the lord in charge of its defence switches sides in rather dishonourable circumstances, Olivier refuses to do the same, and this principled act brings about his imprisonment in a castle called La Musarderie, close to Miserden, on a hilly spur in the River Frome valley.

La Musarderie is still there, although all the defensive stonework has long gone. There is now just the level bailey, and, overlooking it, the large motte or mound on which the keep was built. Bailey and motte once had defensive walls and towers, all gone, but the earthworks remain, and we intended to inspect them as part of a circular walk from Miserden to Caudle Green and back again. I won't say more, because either Angie or myself may decide to write a separate post on what we saw at the castle.

Before setting forth, we were going to meet up for lunch in the village pub, The Carpenters Arms. I arrived first, Angie being delayed by traffic. I bagged a table close to a log fire. It was a particularly chilly day. I chatted to the young landlord and also to an older local man, the sort of thing I often do. Indeed I'd done it at The Butchers Arms at nearby Sheepscombe only the day before, where the landlord and another local customer called Brian drew me in. I was there for lunch, enjoying an Irish-style hotpot called Dublin Coddle, served with herby bread. Hearty and yummy! Anyway, Brian discussed horses - the Cheltenham Gold Cup was about to be run - and mentioned that he was retired from the army, having looked after the officers' horses in the Household Cavalry. He also said he lived in Miserden - well, what a coincidence, with myself and Angie meeting up there next day! He assured me that we would eat well at The Carpenters Arms. So it turned out! While waiting for Angie to arrive, I got chatting to the local man I mentioned, and Brian's name came up, so we discussed him as well.

The thing was, this man was able to hear me speak quite a bit. After ten minutes, he asked me where I was from, because he couldn't place my accent. In fact, he asked me whether I might be German.


I assured him I wasn't. I explained that I was Welsh by birth, but had lived most of my life in south and south-east England. So really I ought not to sound like a foreigner, and certainly not like Angela Merkel! I wondered what there was about the way I spoke that made people like him suppose I wasn't British. I couldn't ask him, because Angie arrived, and we began our own chat. But today I've been pondering this accent business more deeply.

I regularly get asked about my accent. There's definitely something unusual about it.

Nobody ever says it's an odd or unattractive accent. And clearly I speak distinctly, because I'm readily understood, whomever I'm talking with, from Land's End to John O'Groats. No, it's either something that's in my accent, or missing from it, that renders it slightly unnatural or unidiomatic, as if I've learned English to the degree that a superbly fluent foreigner would learn it, but without its being my mother tongue.

All my adult life, it has anyway been called a 'posh' accent. But I'm strictly middle-class, and I have no high-status background whatever. I don't object to the posh label. If it sounds 'to the manor born', well, that's very nice, and I'm sure it cuts ice with certain people - it gets me polite service in upmarket shops and hotels, for instance - but perceived poshness has a bad downside: ordinary folk may think me snooty and head-up-botty as soon as I open my mouth. And I wouldn't want anyone to think that. I'm stuck with it, however. I speak how my Dad used to speak. It's a relic of my upbringing, for better or worse.

I do make a point of articulating all speech sounds well. I want each consonant to be distinct, nothing slurred. And my vowels sounded fully. I don't murmer or mumble. That would be disgracefully sloppy. All this must make the way I speak seem rather crisp, if not staccato. And Germans tend to speak in that way, don't they? Ah, a clue as to why the man in the pub reckoned I might be foreign! And another thing: I am a confirmed word merchant, I know a lot of words, and although I think it pretentious to use obscure words, I will try hard to use the right word to give what I say the correct nuance, if I think the finer meaning will be understood. So perhaps I do sound like a walking dictionary, with an unnaturally good vocabulary - the kind a serious foreign language student would acquire!

I certainly think that missing from my speech is any obvious regional characteristic. Thanks to Dad, I never had a Welsh accent. Dad's own was very 'BBC', from that time when radio announcers and newsreaders like Alvar Lidell had influence. Mind you, Mum retained her Welsh accent all her life, and I do have ways of speaking - individual words, turns of phrase, certain pronunciations - that come straight from her. Some of these seem very odd to Southern Englanders. (Sorry, I should say Engländer, shouldn't I?) And whenever I return from a visit to Wales, it's remarked upon that I've picked up the local accent, though it soon fades. But not entirely. My friends regularly think they catch some fleeting Welshness in my voice when I'm speaking passionately! But it isn't a consistent accent. The chap at the pub said he couldn't hear any Welshness at all.

You know, I think he decided that I wasn't English, and stayed with that, even when I was telling Angie about my rag rug, which he must have overheard. Or perhaps especially because I mentioned my rag rug - they are popular in Sweden, aren't they?


  1. It's a mystery to me, Lucy. Not for a moment have I ever thought your accent the least Germanic... or even Welsh, for that matter. You do, however, have a decisive manner of speech, clearly expressed and with very few umms and arrs. Perhaps he thought that a German trait.

  2. On the whole, I'd prefer to keep those ums and ahs to a minimum! It surely makes a better impression to speak without hesitation, or as if you're always groping for expression.



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