My accent killed a childhood dream. The Cockney of my youth followed me to a Cambridge University admissions interview, where the snobby professor saw red. Literally.
I was wearing a vivid red suit jacket, which was fashionable for about a week in the summer of 1992. I was going for The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. I looked like a British post box. The red jacket was cheap, loud and obvious, rather like my accent. The Cambridge professor thought he was interviewing not a potential undergraduate, but a young Michael Caine disguised as a pimp.
Until that interview, the accent hadn’t been a barrier to one’s ambition or social acceptance. Growing up in East London, Cockney was the mother tongue. We all sounded like a Guy Ritchie movie.
Our vowels stretched like a tarpaulin across a caravan. Medial consonants were like condoms on a first date. We knew they existed, but never used them half as much as we should have done.
When we replaced the hard ‘t’ in “butter” with an aggressive glottal stop, we displayed the facial tics of a stroke victim.
But we all sounded alike. There was safety in numbers. In that stuffy Cambridge office, however, I envied my inability to do posh and squeeze my vowels until they earned membership to a polo club.
The Cockney patter betrayed my working class roots. The professor’s sneer betrayed decades of an unswerving, elitist belief in eugenics. My voice didn’t fit at Cambridge. Nor did my red jacket.
I was only a chunky gold bracelet away from being the campus drug dealer.
So I lost a place at Cambridge and gained a chip on the shoulder that pushed my accent towards cartoonish extremes at Manchester University, where I was offered a place and rubbed shoulders with students who spoke like Benedict Cumberbatch and lived in places like Westminster.
That only aggravated the chip on the shoulder. Westminster wasn’t a place where real people lived. Westminster was a day trip for Chinese tourists, a place where politicians fiddled expenses.
Intimidated by such wealthy, plummy voices, I dragged my working-class baggage into Cockney caricature, spewing out belligerent grunts and generally coming across like an East London gangster chewing on a mouthful of marbles.
It wasn’t so much verbal diarrhoea as it was linguistic constipation, a strained mish-mash of mumbled insecurities, as if I were a Dickensian scamp too scared to demand more of myself or my accent.
But Singapore certainly did.
When I arrived here at the age of 21, tall, sweaty and pasty, looking like an anaemic praying mantis, my status was turned upside down. Vocal tones mattered less than skin tone. White was right. So my accent was all right, sort of.
In England, I had the dropped consonants of a market stallholder. I’d never said the word photograph properly in my life (it’s a foe-er-graf). But in Singapore, I had the voice of a white man and suddenly I was worth listening to, if not always understood.
Native speakers talk too fast. Tongues flip around with the giddy enthusiasm of
a blue whale’s penis during the mating season.
My inane Cockney rambling was peppered with interruptions such as, “eh,ang moh, slow down ah” and “what the hell is a foe-er-graf?”
In the end, Singaporean speech trainers had to teach this Englishman how to speak something vaguely resembling Received Pronunciation (RP) because my England was not so powderful for a local audience.
Inevitably, the fragile RP accent began to fray around the edges once Singlish slipped into the corners of sentences. First, it was the obvious ‘lahs’ and ‘lehs’. Then the Malay verbs and Hokkien vulgarities were added, with a splash of Chinese intonation to create rojak English of the messiest kind.
Depending on the audience, my accent has been described as either “fake Singlish”, “ang moh Singlish”, “atasEnglish” or “Australian English”.
That last one really hurts.
But it’s not just me. It’s you, too. Accents really bother us.
In 2014, my alma mater, the University of Manchester, conducted a study and concluded that “accentism” was a real thing, with discrimination, prejudice, fear and personal insecurities wrapped up inside an “ism”.
In the study, interviewees admitted flattening their accents to fit in, or stand out, or get a job at a Singapore radio station that insists on a farcically faux-American accent that is not found anywhere in the United States, or anywhere in the world beyond the bizarre, Carroll-esque fantasyland of a local radio station.
Singaporeans positively obsess over accents, too. We are past masters at policing, categorising and stereotyping every measured cadence.
Speak a little Singlish and you’re a true blue heartlander. Speak too much and you’re a Hokkien-spouting cliché in search of a tattooist and a fresh singlet.
Speak something approximating Standard English and you’ll make the parents proud as you slip into a decent middle management job. Speak too much Standard English and you’re a hao lian, ang moh wannabe banana, a Singaporean sell-out too ashamed of his heartlander roots to converse in the legit patois of the street.
Of course, speak like an American and you’ll get your own TV show.
The rise and rise of the American accent in Singapore always titillates. I know a Chinese woman who acquired a flawless mid-Atlantic twang, after a three-week vacation in the US.
It’s all very well to ponder her diminished sense of being and priceless lack of self-awareness, but I’d be taking her mimicry gifts straight to Hollywood. Daniel Day-Lewis can’t switch accents that fast.
Perhaps an accent really is a measure of one’s self-worth. Or it’s merely an adaptable tool of communication. Either way, we adopt a voice that generally satisfies the speaker.
And that’s OK, I suppose. The accent remains a social pigeonhole so we might as well settle on the most comfortable option.
Words usually speak louder than actions, except in the case of a certain Cambridge professor who still deserves a Cockney punch on the nose.
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