The comedian Michael MacIntyre has a great skit where he combines all his talent for observation, body-humour and mimicry. He describes how a journey across the 'country' ( he means England) produces the curious phenomenon of moving from a broad West Country 'Orrrrigh?' through a genteel Home Counties 'Hello!', to an equally thick East Anglian accent 'Orrrrigh?' again.
My early childhood journey from Aberystwyth to Cambridge was quite a shock. Arriving at the city with a strong Cardi accent I hated the piss-taking and soon fitted in, though never quite adopted the strangulated Cockney of the working-class of that university city. While walking to school, one boy greeted me every day by calling out 'Watcha mate!'. I was convinced it was a threat, just by the sound of it (I was certain he'd said 'Watch it!'). I never replied. He must have thought me stuck up.
My first real awareness of dialect combined with a distinctive accent came when we moved to the village of Horseheath, on the edge of Cambridgeshire. The burrs and deeply-rounded vowels were reminiscent of my grandparents hint of the Somerset where they both grew up. I made friends there from all classes, from the rector's son to farm and factory workers (I played for a local factory footie team). Their voices reflected the rolling chalk hills and densely packed barley fields. My brother - a student at Cambridge at the time - dismissed the accent I'd willingly taken on, with.... 'You sound just like a bumpkin!'
The same level of revelation came when I went to live in the town of my other grandparents, Barry. It wasn't really until I took a gap year to work at two garages there, that I came to terms with its accent. Working alongside pump attendants and mechanics I listened intently to them and soon my voice echoed theirs. I wasn't conscious much of dialect though, apart from the ubiquitous phrases such as 'good as gold!'
One pump attendant with a very strong accent was virtually indecipherable, but I loved his cynicism and contempt for customers with their posh cars. His squeezed and extended vowels were especially harsh, so he sounded like a human crow with his 'Whaaaaaaat?' In retrospect, it was like a mockery of the Cardiff accent.
Belfast was something else. Although me and my wife actually lived near Ballymena, we spent every weekend in Belfast and her accent and dialect were steeped in the Falls Road. I was fascinated by its richness and the fact that certain phrases were only used by the Catholic/nationalist/republican people : one being 'smile like a goat a-hanging' , which refers to the Puck Fair, where a goat is raised high as king. Most of the phrases, however, crossed the great divide, such as 'wee toady' (very small) and 'skrake of dawn'(early in the morning).
Belfast has never left me. I still use words like 'banjaxed' (meaning not functioning ) to the utter bewilderment of those around me outside my home. Ironically, I refused to speak at all when travelling in the black taxis of the Falls; afraid to arouse suspicion. The next year we moved to W.Germany and the irony was compounded by the fact that one fellow teacher of EFL dubbed me - 'the Belfast Welshman'. My weird amalgam of East Anglia/Barry/Belfast must have baffled the ear.
Merthyr has had the most profound impact on my work and my consciousness. In a tough Comp. the dialect was a tool of survival. When you were called 'Angin!' , you needed to know the degree of insult! I was interested to find the influence of the Welsh language as well, not just on the vocabulary (words like 'cwtch' and 'twti down'), but on the nature of the dialect, with its adherence to flow and sound. Instead of the exact 'going up the mountain', you have the running 'goin up-a mountain', much like mutations in Welsh.
I remember a review of my book of stories 'Wanting To Belong', written by a Rhondda writer.who questioned my use of 'wuz' and 'woz' as unnecessary. Yet, while it may not exist in the Rhondda, this features 'round yer', with the shorter 'wuz' and longer 'woz' both prevalent.
Though I definitely do not talk with a Merthyr accent, I use the greeting 'Orrigh?' all the time. I recall a particularly pretentious Deputy Head who always insisted on replying to this with - 'Yes, I'm fine Michael....and you?'
Moreover, there is always a voice in my head which drops all its 'h's' and 'g's from endings to perfection.
My mate Jazz said -
'I don' wanna be funny but.....
ave yew an yewer missis split?'
'Not that I know of,' I replied,
'unless she aven tol me summin.'
'Coz this woman I know
she comes up t me an sayz......
yewer fren, y'know, tha poet.....
well, ee've goh a profile on 'is website
'Well , it's not me, defnitlee.
Mus be the other Mike Jenkins,
American footballer, there's a whool website
jest dedicated to is girlfren's.'
'No, it woz yew! Ee int from Merthyr!'
My mate Jazz said -
'It's amazin what gets put on-a net....
las week this woman up-a road phones up.
'Yew orright, Jazz?' she sayz,
'coz someone seen on tha intynet
tha yew woz dead!'