Cambridge without an RP accent can be a judgemental placelouis ashworth with permission for varsity

For most students who live in England, the end of term simply signifies that eight weeks of hard work and endless socialisation have come to a close. But for international students, this instead marks the beginning of torment from home friends, and jibes that their accents are becoming more anglicised from their time spent in England. While most are able to laugh these observations off, there is something to be said about perceptions of international students’ accents that points to a deeper misunderstanding of the personal significance that accents have to so many.

Eszter Szentivanyi, a fresher from Hungary, shared that she received comments about having an American accent upwards of ten times just within Michaelmas term. Similarly, Cherry Chu from Hong Kong tells me that she has been told that she sounds “really American” by her British friends, though her American friends say otherwise. She believes that this hybrid elocution is just an “international student accent”, borne from the experience of having teachers from a variety of linguistic backgrounds.

Cherry pointed out the common use of an American-British-accent scale in describing accents of the English language. Among people that I spoke to, the term ‘British accent’ is used largely to refer to Received Pronunciation, but it is important to acknowledge the diversity of accents in this country as well as abroad.

“People think that when I say craic I’m talking about cocaine”

“People think that when I say craic I’m talking about cocaine”, says Lois White, a fresher from Belfast. She shares the numerous interesting — and sometimes shocking — guesses of her linguistic origin by other Cambridge students, from Kiwi to Jamaican. Although she often gets mocked for the way she says “hour”, “shower” or “flower”, she thinks that it’s “just a bit of fun.”

However, Lois believes that her Northern Irish accent is of great personal significance to her. “It would be so sad if I adopted an English accent,” she says. Her parents even joked before she went to university that they would “send me to the country to live with my family who all have really strong accents so that I could relearn it,” if she came home with an English accent. Thankfully, “nobody mentioned this” over the Christmas break, so Lois feels confident that she is “safe” from such a fate.

For others, though, it was inevitable that they’d pick up the English accent over time. Lucy McColloch was born in Belfast and grew up in Dumfriesshire, South Scotland, before moving to England. She describes her accent to be “very English”, though her Scottish roots do resurface when she pronounces words like ‘wee’ or ‘dour’ and local places in Scotland. Similarly to Lois, Lucy finds her identity to come hand in hand with her accent.

“Yes, I do wish I had a bit more of a Scottish accent,” says Lucy, with a tinge of regret, “it would be nice to have a little bit more of a lilt”. Although she admits that her accent has “definitely [become] more London-centred” over the years, it doesn’t stop her from identifying strongly with her Scottish national identity.

Meanwhile, there is another perspective to seeing the changes in one’s accent. Coming back from winter break, I was told by my Londoner housemate that my accent has gone from a “7 out of 10” American to “definitely more British, but like, weirdly neither British nor American”. Growing up in Hong Kong, where there is little awareness of how diverse accents are within the English-speaking world, this comment came to me with little surprise. Code-switching, the act of adapting one’s way of speaking to match the environment one is in, is especially common among students who speak English as a second language.

“Code-switching is especially common among students who speak English as a second language”

At the same time, these changes highlight the dynamic and versatile nature of accents, and the fundamental function of language: to communicate. We don’t just spew sounds, but listen to others to transfer information. This two-way interaction between people means that we unavoidably both give and take accents — it’s simply a matter of whose accents we take up.

Compared to myself though, Elliot Jones seems to be in a greater dilemma of being in-between an American and a British accent. Elliot was born in the USA, but moved to England when he was four years old. Recalling his experiences with his “weird” accent that neither Americans nor British could quite place, he tells me that one of his earliest memories is being made fun of by other school kids for the way he pronounced certain words. Elliot describes feeling insecure about it when he was younger, but he has come to embrace it over the years. “It makes a fun ice-breaker at least,” he adds half-jokingly.


Mountain View

‘I assumed you were stupid when I heard your voice’: does ‘accentism’ exist in Cambridge?

While it is understandable that American and British accents are most often used to describe accents of the English language, we must not forget the variety of accents in reality. This binary scale, even when used unintentionally, reduces the diversity of accents and language. Particularly with regards to non-English varieties of UK accents, they often hold strong connotations for ethno-national identities. With the large international community in Cambridge comes innumerable accents, each with their own unique cultural heritage behind, at times, quirky articulations.