Philip Hensher: Our accents are disappearing, so let's cherish them while we can

Cheryl Cole is returning home, defeated by those who couldn’t understand her

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By common consent, one of the hardest English accents to understand is the Newcastle one.

Unless, of course, you come from Newcastle, in which case it seems perfectly straightforward. But for many non-Geordies, the particular vowels, rhythm and music of the accent, though often appealing in the abstract, can act as a barrier to understanding.

I grew up only 110 miles from Newcastle, and an old-fashioned Geordie speaker still presents a challenge to me. Once, on the train to Edinburgh, I seriously took a pair of gentlemen chatting away volubly for speakers of a Scandinavian language. There are various features which present a challenge. One is the glottal stop, which is more or less ubiquitous. Another is the shape of the vowels and the alarming dipthongs, of course – think of the way a Newcastle speaker of English will say "goat". Most strikingly, it has been claimed that the Newcastle accent is more or less unique in England in providing different pronunciations to male and female speakers, rather like Japanese. It has been said that a group of male speakers of Geordie will pronounce the word "house" quite differently to a female group.

If a British accent can seem, even to a fellow countryman, a challenge, then perhaps we should not be so surprised that even mild examples prove a difficulty outside the country. Miss Cheryl Cole, the member of Girls Aloud who has carved out a secondary career as a talent-show judge, was being groomed as a judge on the American version of our own beloved X Factor. She lasted two weeks before being asked to leave. The reason, supposedly, was that American audiences found her attractive Newcastle tones a real challenge to understand.

Though America itself has a wonderful range of accents, from the Boston Brahmin to the full-on Southern Belle, it perhaps has only a partial experience of non-American speakers of English. The media there is, to us, startlingly ready to mock non-American speakers of English; no English broadcaster would ever suggest anything like Hank Azaria's Apu Nahasapeemapetilon in The Simpsons.

Accent in English has undergone an interesting change, as English has become more and more of a global language. Although we would still recognise the difference between a London speaker of English and a Chicago one, or between upper-class and lower-class speakers in most parts of the English-speaking world, these distinctions in accent are not as sharp as they were half a century ago.

Accentual change has happened to most of us, as individuals. There is no better demonstration of this than the speech of the Queen, who has had the luck to have her speech recorded pretty well every year since the 1940s. Her speech, when heard next to the Irish president last week, or the American president this, was distinct, but not so very remote. Her accent from the early 1950s would have revealed hardly one single vowel in common with them, or indeed with her speech nowadays.

The cause is globalisation. Before the creation of the BBC, most British people would have lived most of their lives hardly hearing anyone speak who did not live more than 20 miles from them. It is not entirely implausible that George Bernard Shaw's Henry Higgins could identify a speaker's origins within a mile or two, or within a street or two in London. They would hardly have heard other ways of speaking.

With the coming of the BBC and the "talkies" in the 1920s, all that changed. And by the 1980s, there were worldwide dialects in English. Australian soap operas taught a whole generation to raise their intonation at the end of every sentence? Like this? In a really annoying way? And California vogue-words – like, whatever – spread into the speech of every person between nine and 16. Similarly, accent seemed to flatten somewhat. One might have expected that the access of every imaginable accent to the worldwide media would have created an awareness of just how varied accents in English can be.

It is true that, in many ways, the growing together of a world-wide community of English speakers in our large cities has brought together an interesting range of accents, each influencing each other – listen to how young Londoners say "each othah", with an emphatic final "a" from Caribbean accents.

But, in the media, globalisation seems to have created a fairly narrow range of acceptable accents. Even in Britain, it is striking that accents on the media are fairly narrowly defined; estuary (Fearne Cotton) but not cockney; mildly Black Country (Adrian Chiles) but not Brummie. There are many more black and Asian faces on the television than there once were, but at an obvious price. I can't think of a single one who speaks in anything but perfect RP, although English belongs to people born in India and Jamaica, whose accents are very familiar on the streets, if not on the television.

Cheryl Cole has fallen foul, apparently, of an American television shibboleth. She was asked to say "Darling" and answered "Pet". We ourselves have just such shibboleths, and they are, oddly enough, the result of everyone talking to each other, across the world, in the last 50 years or so. A massive production like a Hollywood film, a gigantic TV talent show, a music video has to speak to as many people as possible to make money. We can't risk someone who doesn't sound as bland and measured as Simon Cowell. But perhaps that moment is passing. The giant cultural phenomenon which everyone experiences in vast, disparate crowds may be on the way out.

When everyone can access exactly what pleases them best, everyone may choose to go to the culturally specific. In the future, there may be no reason for everyone to be able to talk to everyone. The flattening effect on accent that the worldwide media, producing one-off events, might give way to a valuing of diversity and difference, even in the way we speak.

Cheryl Cole is returning home, defeated by a lot of people who couldn't understand her. But when television itself has dissolved, to be replaced by the giant consumer market that is YouTube, might not that assumption of the desirability of a universal English accent start to look a little bit old-fashioned? After all, we all have a regional accent. You do, I do, Simon Cowell does, Paula Abdul does, the Queen does, and Cheryl Cole does.

Some of those regional accents, for the moment, have a little bit more prestige than others. But there's no reason to think that prestige will stay where it is now. And there's even less to think that accents, as the mass media wanes in power, will continue to draw closer together. Will Americans start to get used to the way people like Cheryl Cole speak? That, I think, is more likely than the idea that people in Newcastle will start to speak like Californians.

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