Anecdote for Fathers’ Day

It was the 60s, and I was in a Linguistics tutorial.

At that time, a new breed of student was beginning to go to university in the UK, thanks to the recently introduced grants system – clever kids from ordinary families who otherwise could not have afforded it.

In this session we were talking about accents and dialects. As the only member of the group who had a regional accent (Birmingham) I was a ‘person of interest’ in a good sense. I was also the only male apart from the tutor. Everyone except me “spoke posh”.

We had talked about accents as they related to geographic areas, now we began to discuss accents as they related to social class.

To make a point, the tutor went around each member of the group in turn and asked, “What do you call your male parent?”

The responses from the young women varied: a couple of “Dad”s, a few “Daddy”s, a “Pop” and even a “Pops”.

As the answers went round the table I pretended first to be puzzled, then surprised and eventually mildly shocked.

By chance, I was last. He fed me the line beautifully. “And lastly Mr Short, what do you call your male parent?”


Poor sucker. He didn’t see it coming. A good tutor, not much older than us, enthusiastic and knew his stuff. But he couldn’t read the sub-text, even as it happened.

He might have understood the theory and mechanics of regional accents but I understood the dynamics. In those days I used to speak like Ozzy Osborne, for pity’s sake. And of course I understood the dynamics of class accents, far better than the tutor or any of the young woman in the group, all of whom had upper crust accents and came from well-heeled families.

He took it at face value. He couldn’t see that I was making a statement about the dis-connect between academic understanding of a concept and actually living the reality; that I was ironically telling him “Yes, I get it” at the same time as sticking it to the posh chicks; and that I was letting them know that they shouldn’t make assumptions about a person’s background or capabilities based on his regional accent, just as they shouldn’t based on the jeans and tee-shirt I wore compared with the up-town frocks they wore.

There was a moment of embarrassed silence, then the now flustered tutor muttered, “Yes, well…” and hurriedly went on to the next topic. The posh chicks were eyeing me with peculiar interest.

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