You can say that again

One thing I should have expected when I moved to Glasgow -- having been an English alien once before in a country with its own revised version of my mother tongue -- was that the natives would find me hard to understand. Typically, though, I thought it was I who would find it difficult to graspm their speech patterns. They, after all, are the ones with the accent.

Well, yes. the truth is, of course, that we all have accents; marvellous evidence of the variousness of people. Universal education in Britain, and the British Broadcasting Corporation, have signally failed in whatever efforts they may have once made to standardize our vowel sounds (they now tend instead to encourage regional differences) and Professor Higgins could keep himself as happily engaged in his gentlemanly studies in 1980 as he did when G.B.S. thought him up in 1912.

When I lived in the States I soon discovered two things about our different ways of speaking. The first was that my new American friends couldn't (or just didn't) hear me. So I spoke very loud, and that problem was surmounted. The second was that telephone operators -- and this honestly happened more than once -- instead of giving me the information I asked for, fell suddenly silent. When , very politely of course, I asked them where they had gone, they would suddenly waken from their speechless trance and say, "Oh, don't stop talking. I love your accent."

In Glasgow I have reencountered the first, though not the second, problem. Asking for directions through this city's complex road system (a dodgy business, to say the least) I have often been met with an incredulous stare. Obviously no single syllable of my utterance could have been recognized, so I have had to repeat it all very slowly.

That this slowness works is, in a way, odd, because Glaswegians themselves tend to speak at a sprint. The words race, and, to my ear, often collide and trip. As a local plasterer and roofing expert put it to me the other evening, "the English are not as clever as the Scots, because they can't understand us. Wem don't use all the word." This hasty disregard for unimportant syllables has been noted in a less complimentary manner by a Yorkshire novelist. Characterizing "six solid men taking dinner," he wrote: "Their . . . speech was mostly in that Clyde accent which dismisses nearly all consonants and might be described as the low swamp in human speech." Ouch.

Actually -- and I'd better say this before furiously partisan letters start rolling in from around the world -- accents vary almost as much within Glasgow itself as they do between, say, Yorkshire and Scotland. The differences range from subtle to vast. It is sometimes hard for one Glaswegian to follow another. There are those whose articulation is so crisp and precise that you have to stand back a little to avoid its full force. Others sound as if they are speaking through two or three layers of sheep's wool. Still others indulge in a sort of verbal abandonment; native woodnotes run very wild.

As an outsider I can find some delight in all these variations on a theme. But it remains a shameful fact that Glaswegians use accents to play the pigeonholing game. The privileged and "deprived," the clever and the lazy, the acceptable and the less acceptable, are instantly, if oversimply, recognized by the way they speak. Glaswegians from Italy, Ireland, Pakistan, are immediately known, and so are Glaswegians from different sides of the Clyde and from different districts to the east or west. Snobberies (though not always very seriously) abound.

In school the teachers find themselves trying to instill an education -- sort of Scottish-English -- into their children. The children respond by becoming bilingual. They address the teachers in one way, their relations and peers in quite another. This confusing two-sidedness is probably because the teachers simply cannot teach spelling without teaching "correct" pronunciation first. IF a child believes that a word with four syllables has only one (because that is the way it sounds in Glaswegian), then he is going to find it virtually impossible to spell. It is his misfortune that standardized spelling has been introduced up and down this wee island. Otherwise, no doubt, it would be perfectly all right for him to spell phonetically and to go on talking the way he does at home. He could with a clear conscience write "Mullguy" when referring to a particular part of the city and would never have to bother his head with the discomforting news that "Mullguy" is actually spelt "milngavie." It is, aye, a hard world.

But, alas, standardized spelling is here to torment, and it does seem an unfair disadvantage, really. After all, even for an Englishman to write down English words spelt properly is an extraordinary test of ingenuity.

Our illogicality is laughable. The "through, though, rough, thought, thorough, tough" game is but one example of the crazy pitfallery. It's no wonder that Glasgow schoolchildren can come up with such delicious inventions as one I saw recently in a primary school composition. The child was writing about her holidays, and she said she took along her "balnockers." "What on earth are 'balnockers'?" I asked the teacher, bemused. "Oh," she answered, as though the misfire was perfectly usual, "binoculars." Mysteriously she hadn't corrected the word, and when I asked why, she said, "Well, you can't correct everything." I suppose not; and anyway, she knew what the child meant.

Sometimes children carry their malapropisms into adulthood. I heard of a particularly fine Glaswegian example only the other day. The man responsible for it apparently has a tendency amounting to genius for getting words inside out, thus greatly enriching the language and delighting his listeners. On this particular occasion he had just witnessed some dramatic event near his home. the police had been summoned and immediately surrounded a neighboring building. Telling his workmates about it, his words fizzling like firecrackers, he described the scene."The police," he spluttered, "threw an accordion roond the building and -- and -- and -- there were Salations everywhere."

Which, of course, is what you'd expect under the circumstances.

Translated (in case the reader hasn't managed it for himself) the sentence means: "The police threw a cordon round the building and there were Alsatians everywhere." If the reader is still in doubt about the presence in Glasgow of a large number of people from Alsace, it should perhaps be further pointed out that "Alsatian" is the word used in Britain to denote the German shepherd dog. It's a good job we all speak the same language.

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