They’re funny, accents. And the thing is, in such an intensely international school, they’re very hard to avoid. It sounds silly – yes of course, everyone has an accent. It becomes something else, however, when we students are surrounded by thousands of others with accents different to our own, whether we are from this country or abroad. This ‘global’ aspect of St Andrews has made different accents so ubiquitous that now, in my second year, they’re harder to notice; they fade into the background as I sit working in Pret, or walk down Market Street.
It wasn’t always like this – when I first arrived here, accents from far corners of the world were all I could hear and it proved quite 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, which were so varied 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 upon being told someone’s hometown.
In the odd, formal dance of introduction that characterized our first weeks here, accents proved a helpful resource. Almost biologically we were aware about potential similarities and differences – where would we stand in comparison to other? In a delicate sequence of trial and error, I began to notice the subtleties of these introductions – asking ‘American or Canadian?’ instead of rushing into a doomed attempt to form a geographic, if superficial connection; or the newly discovered softer, hybrid accent of an international education I found impossible to pin. As the months wore on, the aesthetic novelty of individual accents wore off and they 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 your package; for better or worse it makes up a part of your identity. And with this, it can come with unspoken social or political connotations. Accents can be an entire subgenre of humor. It can 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 I know have tried to intentionally 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 we stereotype, and to what degree.
Regardless of how we perceive them – or if we even notice them at all – accents are intensely personal. They are a trace of home that you have brought you. They are also the cause of fondly cracked jokes, misunderstandings and insults. They can carry with them 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 students, I feel steeped in details of international conflict; lesson after lesson in what makes us different. After all, that is something that I, and everyone I’ve met in my courses, is deeply interested in. Sometimes, however, it can be nicest when they fade and we all 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 with us here, there are some things that are just universally understood.