I have a Scottish accent. Not really much of a surprise given that I was born in Scotland after all.
But it is something that people comment on quite often. The fact that I have managed to maintain my accent, despite having spent the last fifteen years out of the country.
As a child we moved around a fair bit, so all in all, if I calculate correctly, I have only ever spent about one third of my life actually living (on and off) in Scotland.
So perhaps it is unusual that I have this decidedly Scottish accent?
Up until the age of eighteen it mutated – I would assume the accent of whichever town or city we were living in. As a very small child, living in what was then Rhodesia, I did a very, very good impression of a South African Boer – one of the strangest and less appealing accents on the planet, if you ask me.
There was even a time, when we lived in Guildford, that my London estuary drawl was really quite good, yet I cringe when I hear that accent now, and find it as hard on the ears as a pneumatic drill.
But sometime around the age of eighteen I finally fixed on one accent. A west coast, light Glaswegian brogue. Why? How?
I was born in Glasgow, and my parents were both born and raised in the city, so it is an accent that has been with me all my life, even if it was not one that I always possessed myself.
So that could explain why my ear finally settled on that familiar sound and made it my own.
I could accept this explanation, as it is very plausible, but the thing is, my sister, who has moved around as much as me, and who has lived here in Amsterdam now for the past thirteen years, doesn’t have the same accent as me.
It is less Scottish. More (southern) English with a little bit of that Amsterdam twang thrown in for good measure. It’s actually quite nice. But it’s not really that Scottish.
How come I wonder?
It could be that my sister, being a musical sort, is just more in tune with the sounds around her, and so can readily absorb and adopt such a melange of tones, to produce her unique accent.
Quite possible. She just develops a voice that is adapted to the place she happens to find herself.
I can go along with this, as it is what we both did as kids – that easy, ready adoption of the local accent was something you had to learn to pick up pretty quickly if you wanted to fit in with the local kids, and be allowed to enter an established circles of friends.
A “foreign” accent could leave you hanging on the perimeters if you were not careful, so flexibility was a matter of survival.
If this is the case, then I am wondering what my own, now permanent, Scottish accent says about me.
Could it be that, when I decided to fix on this one accent, I was claiming an identity for myself? Was proclaiming once and for all, “this is where I come from”?
Perhaps this is simply another type of response to all that travel and movement. That you decide on one place as your own, and claim it as your personal “heritage” even if that isn’t quite true.
So here am I with this Glaswegian sounding accent, even though I have lived perhaps only a cumulative total of five years in the city.
It’s as if the static nature of my claimed accent, is a foundation, is a sense of place, an identity.
When I speak, it makes me feel Glaswegian. It makes me feel that that is the place where I come from. Where I belong. No matter where I may happen to find myself, that is the constant. That is “home”.
All of this has also got me thinking now of belonging. How do you come to belong to a particular place, a specific town or country?
The past twelve years I have been living here in Amsterdam. It is the longest sustained period I have ever lived in one place. So in that sense perhaps I could call Amsterdam home?
Or can I?
I speak Dutch, I know my way around the city like the back of my hand – every nook and cranny is familiar. I have friends and colleagues, a home, hell, even a dog. So that is all pretty settled and homely.
Yes. It is.
But the Dutch have a word – “ingeburgered”. Bascially it means integrated. They are very, very keen on this at the moment. Keen that people assimilate.
That they learn the language, learn the customs. That they come to enjoy, the peculiar bureaucracy, the tasteless cheese, the bland beer and the artery clogging chips and mayonaisse with the same zeal as the locals.
They even insist that foreigners (non-EU ones that is) follow an “inburgerings” course specially set up to teach these strange aliens the peculiar ways of Dutch life.
Well quite. It may work and there’s no harm in trying. In fact I think that such little insights into the psyche of a foreign land can prove useful.
But that’s as far as you can expect it to go.
It is useful, but it is not some magic potion that will guarantee assimilation and integration.
Belonging to a place is a much more subtle thing than that. It is the accumulation, more or less from birth, of local history, mental street maps, in jokes, memories, events, accents.
It is not something that can be transplanted.
Sure you can live in a foreign land for many, many years, but will you ever really “belong” there? That is the question.
I do a fairly good impression of an Amsterdammer. So does my sister.
I am as reckless on my bicycle as the locals. I know what foolish schemes the mayor is up to. I can get comfortable and “gezzelig” in the cafes and bars. I can curse quite proficiently in the full throttle Amsterdam style. Hell, I have even been known to enjoy the odd bit of cheese on occassion.
But I am not an Amsterdammer and I never will be.
I still miss the subtle gestures, the nods and winks of understanding when a certain word is said, a certain person mentioned. There are street names that are still unfamiliar to me. This place is not my own.
Put more simply, Amsterdam is where I live, but it is not where I belong.
I was reading the other day an article by Christopher Hitchens in The Atlantic.
He was commenting that after more than twenty years in the States, and with two children born there, he is still confronted by people who question his status as an American.
In this case it was Pat Buchanan that was making the case against Hitchen’s right to question America and American values. It seemed to have left Hitchens quite flabbgergasted, this attack on his status as an American. He clearly feels he has a right to feel as much a part of America as any natural born citizen.
I read this and was reminded once again of James Kelman and his assertion that you do indeed have to be careful in the land of the free.
By chance I also came across a diary entry of an old friend of mine whom I haven’t seen in years. He hails from Belfast, but has lived in Glasgow for seventeen years I guess it must be now.
In his ramblings he actually asks if he now has the right to claim Glaswegian citizenship. After all, to spend half your life in a city counts for something, no?
I guess perhaps he just feels Glaswegian now. Give him the keys to the city I say – for he’s more Glaswegian than I am, that’s for sure.
Perhaps what I’m vaguely getting at with all of this, is that assimilation is not something we can expect of people. And it is certainly not something we should seek to demand of them.
All we can expect is that us “unassimilatit furnirs” grow to understand, respect and enjoy the place in which we find oursleves.
To ask for anything more – that we discard our personal histories, our memories, our sense of belonging, our accents, is to ask for the impossible.