John Scott Masthead
April 10 2012 at 11:26

Our sympathy must go to the teenage son of Gerry and Liza Dalton, who is being severely bullied in Irish schools because of his South African accent.

The Daltons emigrated to Ireland because of crime, but at two schools in their adopted country, one north of Dublin and the other in County Meath (a region where my maternal grandmother was herself a teacher), their son is being subjected to criminal behaviour.

Trust the Irish to be perverse. Why don’t they also think our accent is “cute”, as mine once was in America.

The only time I have a problem with an accent is when it makes English unintelligible. On the SABC sometimes, for instance.

And I still wasn’t sure what an old colleague was saying 40 years after he had left Glasgow for South Africa.

The best way to react to juveniles who think your accent is funny, even if they don’t beat you for it, is to imitate them.

We lived in London when my younger daughter was eight, and within weeks she could talk like a Cockney, complete with glottal stops. She would regale us with advantages of shopping at Sainsburys – apparently we could save “a good two peeown’ or more” if we bought their “pota’ohs”.

In later years when her Canadian cousin Terry spent a holiday with us, he studied Robin Malan’s book Ah Big Yaws?, then applied what he had learnt by asking “gimme a sluck ivyaw Pipsie, mehn”.

That’s the thing about accents – they can so easily be learnt and unlearnt. My sister-in-law spent a year in the United States as an American Field Service exchange student, and came back with a Boston accent. Within six months she had lost it.

And never mind foreign accents.

My father once tape-recorded his brother’s young daughter Shirley (one of my only two first cousins) reciting the nursery rhyme “Clickety, clickety my black hen”.

It came out as “Cluckety, cluckety, maa blicken, she lies eggs for gentlemen, sometaams naan un sometaams ten...”

Needless to say, Shirley no longer speaks like this. She has a very proper accent, as befitting someone with a doctorate in education.

The tape-recording was made as part of a family message to my father’s cousin Tom Hill, who lived in Newcastle-on-Tyne. Tom would send tapes back, and we would all imitate his Geordie accent.

Sometimes in London my own accent would be mistaken for Australian. And when in Australia I did pick up the lingo very quickly. So much so that in the Outback an oldtimer thought I was his mate, then apologised with “sorry, wrong bloke”.

The other accent I do pretty well is Indian, Peter Sellers-style. In fact I listened to him doing Indian for hours and hours in preparation for a farce in which I played an Indian servant.

I also do Van der Merwe and one April Fool’s Day, claiming over the phone to be “Sergeant Van Rooyen from Caledon Square”, persuaded my father that “the rioters are burning down your bioscope as I speak”.

He was in such a hurry to drive into town that he pulled his trousers over his pajama pants, and I had great difficulty persuading him that Van Rooyen and I were the same person.

But even with my Irish ancestry, I confess I find Irish tricky.

I just hope that Dalton junior gets the hang of it quickly.


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