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Writings of Albert Morris
Article 71 - Officialdom's bias towards the diversity of Caledonia


WHITEHALL officials’ recent refusal to allow a Russian woman to study English in Scotland because, they claimed, she would not be able to understand the accent, barred her from a unique linguistic opportunity. Had she studied in Edinburgh, she might have acquired an accent like mine, outstanding in its well-modulated clarity, honed by the wind in Old Town streets, draughts in New Town parallelograms, mist rolling in from the sea, rain-refined and its resonance reinforced by endemic catarrh.

The nameless and faceless officials showed inordinate bias towards the rich, vocal diversity of Caledonia, stern and wild, but accent prejudice is only too common. Many years ago, when inflamed by a desire to read Pushkin in the original Russian, I was guilty of it.

Aspiring to unravel the vocal and grammatical complexities of that Slavonic tongue, I sought a tutor and was recommended to confront an elderly, fierce-looking, Polish ex-cavalry officer who gazed at me as if inspecting an awkward recruit, but indicated that students who jumped to his commands would "soon speak Russian good like I speak English".

Spurring me to charge the ramparts of sentence structure, he shouted instructions as if I were a troop of horse. I struggled across the difficult terrain of verb conjugations, sabre-slashed at the Cyrillic alphabet, collected nouns as if taking prisoners and cannonaded him with explosive vowel sounds. For entertainment, he would read to me pages of Russian poetry, often choosing one about agrarian disturbances 50 versts south of Tobolsk.

I progressed. I reached my first objective - simple, useful sentences such as, "Where is the carburettor of my tractor?" and "What have you done with the broken lamp-shade?" Seeking approval of my prowess, I delivered simple sentence samples to one of this newspaper’s leader writers, a fluent Russian speaker, who, on consideration, commented, "You have a pronounced Polish accent."

Great articulative heavens, I had nothing against Poles, an industrious and talented people, but I did not want their accents, or those of any other nation intruding into my Russian, unless, purely and simply, they were Scottish ones.

I regret to reveal that for such a flimsy reason I handed in my grammar book and list of handy phrases for use in the Soviet land, so dear to every toiler, retreated from Moscow and never returned, although I sometimes think that a hint of the soft-flowing Vistula lingers in my vowels and an accented suggestion of old Cracow still clings to my consonants.

My belief, that to have an Edinburgh South accent is to draw the winning ticket in the linguistic lottery of life, was confirmed, when, in the Army, I encountered the wide variety of dialects and accents in Britain. For me and other Scots, they created, at times, an almost impenetrable barrier to effective communication.

Birmingham or "Brummie" nasalised whines sounded like steam escaping from pipes, Welsh native woodnotes wild were swollen with sometimes unclear sing-song syllables, south-west England accents could suggest overdue milking-time for the larger ruminants, Home Counties ones of the "hooray Henry" type grated like echoing corrugated iron while some Scottish ones used consonants like battering rams, sounded like the sullen thump of steam hammering or had the soft, rippling clarity of a Highland stream.

What makes the derogatory attitude of the Whitehall officials to the accents of the land of mountain and flood untenable is the fact, as stated in a letter to a newspaper, that Scots have colonised the government and that a plethora of Scots voices is now heard along the air-passageways of parliamentary power.

Gordon Brown’s accent conjures up the sound of a boulder bouncing down a scree slope, Robin Cook’s voice often has the indignant and complaining quality of a kennelled Scotch terrier deprived of a walk, Michael Martin, the Speaker, projects the accent of a Glasgow police inspector, the result of a career dealing with the drunk and disorderly, habitual malcontents and other barely-civilised citizens. Even Tone, our superbly-articulate Prime Minister, has, I submit, a Fettes-formed accent at his tongue-up. All are understood too well.

With an Edinburgh accent like mine, one of the supreme achievements of human speech, my attitude towards Whitehall scorners of the Scottish tongue must be unequivocal. First, last and in the middle, we are poles apart.


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