They’re funny, accents. And the thing is, in such an intensely international school, accents are hard to avoid. It sounds silly – yes of course, everyone has an accent. However, it becomes something else when we are surrounded by thousands of other students with accents different to our own, whether we are from this country or abroad. This ‘global’ aspect of St Andrews makes different accents so ubiquitous that now, in my second year, they’re harder to notice; they fade into the background as I do my work in Pret or walk down Market Street.
It wasn’t always like this – when I first came to Uni, accents from far corners of the world were all I could hear. It proved exciting for me, subtle reminders of the distance I had traveled and new life I was experiencing. During Freshers Week, my interactions were steeped in them – French, Russian, Greek (and its subtly different counterpart, Cypriot), German, Chinese, Norwegian, Syrian, Jordanian, Indian, Irish and Northern Irish – not to mention the vast array of English, Scottish and American accents. I quickly and subconsciously set about trying to piece them together into some sort of accent-map so that I wouldn’t look so clueless when someone was telling me their hometown.
In the odd and formal dance of introductions that characterized our first weeks here, accents proved a helpful resource. Almost instinctively, we were aware of potential affinities and dissimilarities that accents pointed to – where would we stand in comparison to others? In a delicate sequence of trial and error, I began noticing the subtleties of these introductions – asking ‘American or Canadian?’ instead of rushing into a doomed attempt to form a geographic, if superficial connection between the two nationalities, let alone the newly discovered softer, hybrid accent of an international education I found impossible to pin. As the months wore on, the aesthetic novelty of characteristic accents wore off and they all began to meld together. Halfway through conversations, someone would mention where they were from, and I’d be astonished that I hadn’t noticed. But with this normalization, I became aware of what lay behind some of the novelty.
An accent comes with who you are, for better or worse it makes up a part of your identity. With this comes unspoken social or political connotations. Accents can prove an entire subgenre of humor. They become something you can wield, and something you can transform. Friends of mine delegate who among them should call Fife Council based on whose accent they are more likely to listen to. There are those who try to soften their accents, and those that since coming here latch onto it with more intensity than before. There are those that have taken on a different accent entirely. We all know which accents are stereotyped and to what degree.
Regardless of how we perceive them – or if we notice them at all – accents are intensely personal. They are a trace of home that you brought here. They are the cause of fondly cracked jokes, misunderstandings and insults. They carry a sense of fierce identity and loyalty for somewhere we’re missing – whether it be a country, a region or the bit of town on the other side of the river. Heard across a sticky Union table on a Friday night, they can lead to sudden connections and friendships – “Wait, are you from – ?” They can make people feel less alone.
As a humanities student, I am immersed in details of international conflict; lesson after lesson in what makes us different. After all, this is something that everyone I’ve met in my courses and I are deeply interested in. But sometimes it’s nicest when the accents fade and we become just a bunch of students cracking stupid jokes around a table, burning eggs together in a noisy kitchen, or flirting on the dance floor. No matter where we’re from, or what we’ve carried here with us, some things are just universally understood.