Invisible Stranger

Invisible Stranger

Collecting Crises on Old Compton Street and Beyond

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Little Tinker

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Thursday, March 25, 2004
Acc(id)ents Will Happen
I studied Modern Languages at University. Back then we called it Frog and Kraut and there was always more emphasis placed on literature than on the languages themselves. All quite brilliantly useless, of course, even though they always came in handy chatting up Armand from Antibes and Kurt from Cologne. We read some great books — The Tin Drum, just about anything by Zola (Emile, that is, rather than Gianfranco) — but they led directly to not one decent job for anyone I know. It’s quite disturbing to graduate after four years of a so-called language degree and discover most Germans don’t go for Goethe, and the French give hardly a f**k for Flaubert, and you're never going to use your languages in your job after all.

Fortunately, twenty-odd years on, and unlike many of my fellow students, my German is still good, a standard heroically maintained through never saying "nein" in dodgy Berlin bars. My French could be better, but it's still passable, its fluency depending on just how many Ricards have been consumed that evening. And because of a foundation course in Linguistics, and a basic schoolboy's knowledge of Latin (best subject not on the National Curriculum, you know, and it should be reinstated confestim), I can usually bumble around in most languages between here and the Finland Station, and get myself at least halfway understood. (And before anyone says it, yes, that's right, I still can't say "no" in any of them.)

So with this background and ear for languages, you'd think I'd be able to distinguish between all the varying regional nuances of my native tongue. Tell an Essex girl from a Geordie lass, for instance, a Lincolnshire poacher from an Irish rover, and know the difference between a Bondi backpacker and a Cincinnati quarterback.

Think again. For today I have just discovered that a girl I've worked alongside for three months, and who, from her accent, I presumed to come from a tough-as-nails Belfast council estate, actually hails from Edinburgh. And the really posh bit at that.

Languages I am fine with. It's the accents I don't get. And Professor Henry Higgins I most definitely am not.