Stormont, seat of the Northern Irish AssemblyFlickr: Robert Young

My first conversation in Freshers’ Week went something like this:

“Excuse me, where can I buy a gown?”

“I’m sorry?”

“Oh – erm, where can I buy a gah-own?”

A whole year later, I’m still working out how to navigate the murky waters of Cambridge accents. I hail from Northern Ireland, and, as much as we may claim to be part of the UK, our accent is stubborn. It refuses to conform to what is seen as the typical English accent.

That first day in college reminded me that, despite our similarities, there are still things that separate us: the way I say ‘cow’ and ‘gown’. Or, perhaps the most famous of all – ‘power shower’. I’ve been involved in enough misunderstandings by now to make me want to avoid saying these words entirely. I am faced with a dilemma: should I give in and anglicise my words, or should I stick to my natural accent and risk being misunderstood? It still feels too much like a betrayal of my roots to go ‘fully’ English, so I tend to hover somewhere ambiguous, producing a strange kind of blend.

“I can’t help but feel a warm glow of solidarity when I hear those familiar tones in a lecture, or a study group”

In contrast, some Northern Irish friends of mine find that their accent becomes stronger when they come to England – an ironic nod to the famous Unionist slogan ‘No surrender’. I’ll admit that I don’t think the Northern Irish accent is the most attractive accent out there – though Jamie Dornan has certainly worked wonders on that front. Despite this, I can’t help but feel a warm glow of solidarity when I hear those familiar tones in a lecture or a study group. When I meet someone from Northern Ireland, I immediately relax, knowing that I can embrace the full roundness of words like ‘hour’ without feeling self-conscious.

Since everything else in Northern Ireland seems to be mixed up with politics, you could suggest that accents are, too. But I’d counter that – it may have been an issue twenty years ago, but isn’t so much of a problem now. It’s true that there are areas back home where I would prefer to speak with as broad an accent as possible, but that’s not because there is any risk in speaking with an English accent; it’s purely because I don’t want to draw attention to myself. Part of this intense situational awareness may have something to do with being a languages student and wanting to sound as ‘authentic’ and local as possible. I’m interested to see how this works when I’m on my year abroad – will I return speaking French with a strong Provençal twang?

“How much does an accent define who you are? Quite a lot, it seems.”

The ability to rapidly change accents simultaneously delights and frustrates me. When I return home, everyone comments on how posh I sound – how I say ‘war-ter’ instead of ‘watter’, or ‘maths’ instead of ‘maz’. After a few weeks mingling with friends, the English accent disappears – but, as I discovered on a recent summer phone call, this creates confusion for my Cambridge friends. “Is that really Emma?” a friend asked me. “You sound like a completely different person!” We laughed about it, but it struck a chord. How much does an accent define who you are? Quite a lot, it seems. And when your accent changes every few months, how does that affect your identity? It’s the whole issue of the Cambridge/home persona again – which one is the real me? Interestingly, I spoke with an English accent up until the age of five, so you could say that I have equal right to choose whichever accent I please.

That’s the key, really. Just like we have the right to change how we style our hair, we also have the right to speak how we want to, without fearing judgement.

We talk a lot about embracing diversity in Cambridge – why not try and embrace diversity in accents, too?

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