Although the UK is a place of diverse accents, I think that the Birmingham or Black Country accents are the most maligned. (Footnote: people from the Black Country will have you believe that their accent is distinct from Brummie. They – we – can get quite offended at the suggestion they sound similar. The uneducated would not recognize the difference). As both Birmingham and the Black Country reside in the same county, I’ll lump both accents together here and refer to them in general terms as the ‘West Midlands‘ accent.
It’s a drawling accent, spoken with emphasis on the vowels. And, because it’s riddled with dialect, it’s not easily understood by those from outside the area. To give you an idea, Ozzie Ozbourne is probably one of the clearer conversationalists to have emerged from the region. In the UK, if you want to portray a character as a little ‘slow’, you attach a West Midlands accent to them. For Canada, think Newfie. For the US, think deep south. It’s the accent of national ridicule. I was always conscious of this.
This could have resulted in an element of paranoia, and a lack of confidence. I always felt that I was at a disadvantage in the UK just because of my accent.
I have to say at this point that I love accents. They add colour to language. And, I particularly like the the one I grew up using. As I have become older and moved away, first to Derby (“Ey up mi duck”), then Sheffield (“Where’s tha bin”?), and finally Montreal (er…”Go Habs Go!”…?), my accent has evened out a little. But, it’s still obviously different from most I am surrounded by.
I have, on occasion been mistaken for Australian, South African, a New Zealander, Irish, and perish the thought, Scottish. Usually though, I get credited with being what I am – an English man, with a distinctly English accent. And, contrary to the perceived inhibition I felt in my homeland, I have found my exaggerated vowels and missed consonants to be quite advantageous in North America.
In North America, when I speak, it is an immediate conversation starter; “Where is that accent from?”, “I have family in the UK”, “Are you Scottish?” (shudder). It also buys some credibility. I have been told on more than one occasion that I can say anything and make it sound plausible. But the biggest advantage my accent has provided on this side of the pond? Well, I’m not particularly good looking, and I’m certainly not a wealthy man. But the mother of my child is a very attractive American. 😉
I worked at one of the town’s largest employers – a glass works. There had been a glass works on that same site since 1751. I will resist the temptation to suggest that many of the folks I worked with had probably been there since the opening day. But, there was a history of generations of families earning their living there. I worked with people whose Dad had worked there, and their Dad too.
Basically put, the majority of the workforce were local – from Rotherham, Sheffield, Barnsley and Doncaster. As a native of the Black Country, I was definitely the ‘exotic’ one. This type of local community was one that I was familiar with. Most of the folks I went to school with were from within a couple of miles radius. I suspect that things may have changed a little since I left the UK, but in my day, when you entered a community, you usually found yourself with locals.
Canada is made of immigrants. And they emanate from all corners of the globe. Montreal is a melting pot of diverse nationalities and cultures. In my first job in Canada, I remember working with 1st generation Canadians with Italian, Indian, Greek and Israeli heritage. Added to that, bona fide, just-off-the-boat immigrants from Sri Lanka, Ireland, Scotland, Poland, Lebanon and myself from England, and it was an extremely multi-cultural environment. I’m not talking about folks scattered throughout the company. These were not people I’d bump into every now and then – these were my closest working colleagues, sitting within yards of me every day.
At the moment, I work directly with two Iranians, a Japanese, a Filipino (spelled correctly, I checked), an Armenian, an Italian, a Venezuelan, and a couple of Canadians… not to mention the South Korean and the Frenchman I occasionally engage with, and the recently departed German.
I suspect that the UK is becoming more diverse too. When I speak to my old friends back home, they talk about the people from eastern Europe currently living their lives in the cities and towns of Britain. On my last visit, I was served coffee by a Czech, I was waited on by a Pole, and an Albanian cleaned my table. Three different venues between breakfast and lunch. And, they all seemed pretty Indian in Shimla Pinks (I recommend this Indian restaurant if you’re in Birmingham – and they’re not paying me to say that).
The Migration Statistics Quarterly Report: November 2010, seems to support the theory of a changing demographic in the UK. The report, published by the UK Office for National Statistics, shows Poland as one of the top suppliers of immigrants for the year up to March 2010, joining more traditional immigrant providers such as India, Pakistan and Ireland.
I’m not sure that the Brits are as comfortable with this type of diversity as the Canadians are, yet.