【明報專訊】At that time of day the fold-up tables at the outdoor cafés would have been set up in the wide concrete expanse along the waterfront and the stools would begin to be taken by the Westerners returning from their jobs on The Big Island. They trickled in with each docking ferry. A goodly number of them worked as English teachers at the British Council, and at the end of the day they sat drinking their beers and performing personality autopsies (剖析) on their students, their schools, and nearly everyone they worked with.
With a few exceptions, most of those who gathered there were British, and I was just beginning to learn about British prejudices and the complexity of the British class system. They knew where someone was from almost by instinct, and hearing my American tones — which most Americans thought sounded distinctly British — branded me as an outsider. But I wasn't alone. I had come to know a musician who lived on the island. He was from south London and had come to Hong Kong to play the French horn in the Hong Kong Philharmonic. Eventually his wife came to join him, and each day they would go off to Hong Kong together on a mid-morning ferry, he to rehearsals at City Hall, she to wander the streets and byways of Hong Kong alone. At the end of the day they would meet again to return home together. When I was told this, I asked the musician why his wife didn't meet with the wives of other orchestra members.
''Because of her accent,'' he said. I'd met his wife, and I had no difficulty understanding her accent, so I was perplexed. ''She was born within the sound of the Bow Bells,'' he said. That meant nothing to me until he explained: St Mary-le-Bow is a church in London's east side, and those who are born in the shadow of it, or within the sound of its bells, speak cockney. And cockney, it seems, is deemed to be one of the two or three lowest dialects in all of England, a small land where there are literally hundreds of accents. ''Every man, woman and child in the United Kingdom tends to know the precise status of someone by listening to them speak,'' he explained. ''And from that they pretty much know what the person eats, how the person lives, how he votes, who their friends might be, and what newspapers they read. Do they read the popular tabloids, or do they read those that are called the broadsheets? That is, the ''quality'' newspapers?''
In my naivety, that was something I wasn't prepared for, but in time I came to realise that it was true. It's something ingrained in the British psyche, so much so that most people in Britain speak with two voices: one for those one meets on a casual basis — including one's colleagues at work — and the other one to use with one's family and friends. The one for family and friends is the natural one: the one for everyone else is the pretend one. Those with a desperate urge to abandon their beginnings and remake themselves study Received Pronunciation, known as R.P. That's the voice with the broad vowels that's heard on the BBC, and unless one is a rock star, a sports star, or a stage or movie personality, it's essential that he or she transforms the way he/she speaks if they have any hope of moving up in the economic and social world of Britain. No matter how long or how hard someone tries, though, he/she will never truly be able to erase the past or their humble beginnings from their speech. That's because everyone in Britain is, in the words of Winston Churchill, branded on their tongues from the day of their birth.
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̷̷ by John Bell Smithback ̷
© John Bell Smithback