Fiona and Me
I was watching the impeachment hearings on Thursday waiting for Dr. Fiona Hill to begin her testimony, expecting to hear an American woman speak. When she started speaking I immediately knew she was English by origin and a few seconds later recognized her accent as characteristic of the north east of England. This piqued my interest as I too was born in that part of the country. She went on to explain that in England her accent would have acted as an impediment to her professional success, which I don’t doubt, but that in America it had not counted against her—and indeed she had done little to smooth its edges (to her credit). She was, and is, what is called a Geordie in England. I remarked to George Stephanopoulos, who was covering the hearings live for ABC news, that people from that part of England are as tough as nails and very blunt (she is a coalminer’s daughter and my own father worked “down the pit” for a while as a teenager). He replied “Clearly” and indeed she went on to demonstrate the correctness of my description. It took an immigrant Geordie woman to teach a bunch of American senators a lesson in intelligence and integrity, and I hope the lesson wasn’t lost on them.
Anyway it prompted in me a series of reflections on language acquisition. I must have spoken with a strong Geordie accent as a young boy, even after we moved to Kent when I was three. This will have continued till I went to school at age five as my parents naturally carried their accent with them to the south of England. Of course, I have no recollection of any of this. At that point I must have gradually made the transition to the accent characteristic of that part of England—an accent close to the London accent, exemplified well by Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. It is completely different from the Geordie accent. When my family moved back north to Blackpool when I was twelve I was taken to have a Cockney accent by my schoolfellows, while my parents continued with their original accent. How did I do it? I went from Geordie to Cockney without apparent effort or consciousness. How long did it take? What did I work on first? Was it at all difficult for me to pronounce the words so differently? I can’t even do a Geordie accent today. Evidently I still had enough brain plasticity at age five to move smoothly from one accent to another, and there is no reason to suppose that I was deficient in either accent at the time I spoke them. A few years later and I would probably have had the Geordie accent for life, but my brain enabled me to pick up the brand new accent with remarkable facility. I wonder what my parents made of it. So, Fiona, you evoked strong memories and deep reflections in me. Thanks for everything, hinny.