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."
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
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.