Four or five years ago, I had a student from England in my class. She was a nice, sweet girl, and her clothes were stylish and clean. The thing that stood out the most about her was a THICK cockney accent (like the way Dick Van Dyke’s character speaks in Mary Poppins). It’s hard for me to think of an example from a movie that truly expresses the extreme nature of her accent. She reminds me of the Scottish guys in the movie Trainspotting – she was indecipherable. She rarely spoke, but when she did, I had to ask her to repeat herself at least twice. The other students didn’t understand her either. I’d look over to them for help, and they would just collectively shrug their shoulders.
We got to the point in the year when it was time to read Pygmalion (in case you don’t know, it’s basically My Fair Lady – if you don’t know still, it’s like the episode of Family Guy where Stewie makes a bet with Brian that he can make a lady of his new British neighbor). Well, everyone thought it would be ever so cute if our little British girl read the part of Eliza Doolittle – me included. She read it. It was SUPER cute. It was perfect because she could just read it without even trying and it sounded right. Normally, when my students try to read with a cockney accent, it sounds like Apu from The Simpsons or Crocodile Dundee, at best.
I’ve thought about it since then and I kind of shudder with embarrassment at the thought. Usually, when someone has a cockney accent, they are poor and uneducated. Proper Brits don’t speak like this. Can you imagine Winston Churchill saying, “Lawd above! A lie gets 'alfway around da world befawer da truf 'as a snipe ter get its blowlamps on., innit.” Her accent was that times 10! I basically was saying, “Hey, you poor, unwashed Brit, why don’t you amuse us with your silly accent? Read, my little performing monkey!” Clap. Clap. This would be like if I asked a little country girl to read Mayella Ewell from To Kill a Mockingbird – you're probably racist, right? Why don’t you read this character? Or a boy with terrible acne to read The Summoner from The Canterbury Tales – hey, your skin’s a little beaten up and so is his. Perfect.
Luckily, I’m a little more cognizant of this now. Hopefully, she didn’t take offense to my ignorance. By the way, how many times have I ended a post with something like that? I hope ________ didn’t take offense to ________.
P.S. On another note, I’ve been thinking about this for a while now. Imagine, if you were a mobster and your mobster friend got shot, would you rather take him to a butcher or a tailor to get fixed up? Like, it’s 2:00 am and these are the only two places open.
Both have their positives.