The Mysterious Case of the City that Lost Its Voice

In another blog post, by Tom Forth  describing what he saw as the failure of Birmingham as a city, he had this to say:

If a group of lads “looks after you car” in Liverpool, they do it in the local accent. If a similar group in Manchester or Leeds are chatting while listening to happy hardcore on the back of the bus they do it in a suitably filthy Northern accent. One of the most jarring experiences for me in Birmingham is that the same genre of lads speak not like they’re fresh out of Peaky Blinders, but more like they want to be Dizzee Rascal.

And he’s right. Something strange has happened to a city of a million people.  Birmingham has lost its distinctive accent. In the space of, say, thirty years, the accent that once was the hallmark of the city, is now a minority attribute, largely confined to the city’s outer wards; the white edge lands, where the city bleeds into the Black Country, or Warwickshire, or Worcestershire.  Densely populated inner-urban Birmingham no longer says “Tarrah a bit”, “bab”, or “bostin”, whatever the fancy postcards sold in the city’s cultural venues say.  The accent of Jess Phillips resounds with many in her Yardley constituency, but it isn’t the voice of Small Heath, Ladywood, or Alum Rock. Why?

When I happen to be on a bus when the schools come out, which happens more often than I would like, the school kids, a multi-ethnic bunch heading back to the poorer wards in a poor city, have little trace of Jess Phillips in their tones. They sound, to my ears, blandly RP-ish, except when deliberately using Black English.  When I listen more carefully, the older Asians, many educated in the city, have a hint of Brummie in their speech rhythm, but younger Asians often don’t, either adopting the emergent British Asian working class accent, or, if middle class, speaking RP.

It wasn’t always like this.  I can still remember the middle class Birmingham accent. ‘Posh’, we thought it. There’s a hint of it in Enoch Powell, still more in the former Tory MP for Birmingham Northfield, Anthony Beaumont-Dark, a Birmingham stockbroker before he entered Parliament.  The former Liberal Democrat MP Lorely Burt was a rare recent speaker of posh Brummie, as is the one time Radio Four regular, David Stafford.  Frank Skinner’s West Brom accent is close enough, but these accents are now exotically rare.

The city is one of the youngest, most diverse cities in Europe. Herein lies the explanation, I think.  White flight emptied the inner-city of the old white Birmingham working class, depositing them in the housing estates on the city edges, or even moving them out to new towns, like Telford and Daventry.  The Birmingham-accented middle class of old belonged to an era of manufacturing industry, and the regional financial services that once supported them. They too have gone, literally having no business in the city any more.

The city’s new middle class is concentrated around the five universities, the many colleges, the large teaching hospitals, and the major cultural institutions.  They are Theresa May’s ‘citizens of nowhere’, more politely described as international, and career-builders in fields where you need to be geographically mobile.  They have accents of where they came from, but their children do not grow up with a local accent, because in the schools they attend, there isn’t one.

The new working class is also international. Diaspora communities of Francophone and Lusophone Africans are present in numbers in the city, with links across the EU, as well as Africa. There’s also a new EU white working class moving into the inner-city wards where once the Irish lived. The older New Commonwealth population from the Indian sub-continent and the Caribbean has seen class fragment their identities, with the upwardly mobile and economically successful moving into the Edgbaston mansions once occupied by the city grandees, the professional middle classes as accentless and mobile as their white peers, and the black and Asian working classes dividing into those fiercely protecting their identities (often through religious affiliations), and those who have melted into the white working class.  This is a very mixed-race city, and elderly couples in which one partner is white, the other black or Asian, is a fairly common sight.

To go through such an acute and numerically huge population churn in such a short space of time seems to have erased the Birmingham accent, driving it to the city limits, where it merges with the more enduring West Midlands accents of small towns in former industrial shires.

But a city that loses its accent must build its identity in new ways. And that’s another story.


One thought on “The Mysterious Case of the City that Lost Its Voice

  1. Hi Yasmin
    Thanks for this. I wonder if the neutralisation of the Brummy accent has something to do with the relatively short timescale over which the recent waves of migrants have arrived? It certainly was always a softer, less defined accent than those of the neighbouring Black Country, where local accents, and even traces of dialect seem to survive.
    I have no real evidence for this theory, just a hunch, really. If true, it may have something to do with Brum being more cosmopolitan and welcoming, compared with the powellite parochialism that sometimes seems to characterise the Black Country. “Ay, whose tha Ayli?” “Ah do no.” “Well ave a brick at I’m then!”
    Al the best in this increasingly crazy world.


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