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Speaking in Tongues

My Sheffield accent started to fade when I left – but every now and again it makes a triumphant return.

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Allan Mas

Over time, things blur and fray at the edges.

I had an accent when I lived in Sheffield. It was probably the same as yours: strong and beautiful in much the same way as cold custard. Everyone understood me straight away though, because I talked like them. I was one of them.

But something's changed since then. My Sheffield accent started to fade when I left. And now, mumble years later, it's been smoothed away to almost nothing by time and the effect of listening to people here in York, so that now I'm in some weird linguistic hinterland where no-one understands me anymore. I'm neither there nor here. To be honest with you, I feel a bit lost.

But every now and again my Sheffield accent makes a triumphant return.

Imagine an open plan office. Huge place. Customer service was the game and I was playing my part. You'd think that, with a room this big, no-one would be able to pick out anyone else's voice from the background hum. You'd be wrong.

My dad's a bit hard of hearing due to his eardrums rupturing at an early age. A combination of diving off the high board and then having the doctors poke around in his ears made it so that people have to shout up for him to hear. Why I made the decision to call him from work is absolutely beyond me. Must have been something important, right? Something so vital that I found my voice turned up to eleven in the middle of my shift in that big office. And guess what? My Sheffield accent decided to come to the party too.

Conversation done, I puts the phone down and straight away I sense something's different. The room is absolutely silent. Not a voice to be heard. And into that hush, a tiny North Yorkshire accent pipes up from one of the managers on the other side of the room: “What on earth was that, Robert?!”

It’s not the only time that my Sheffield accent has popped up to announce itself. When I met my beautiful wife she went several blissful months before she even knew I had an accent. It was only when I took her back home to meet my parents that she found me out.

We were driving through north Sheffield and I somehow got turned around and lost my way, so I stopped for directions. When I'd done talking to one of the local lads, I wound the window back up and turned to my wife to let her know that all was well, only to find that she was looking at me gobsmacked. She'd not been able to understand a single word I'd said. She didn't even believe me when I said it was English.

I went years not realising how strong the Sheffield accent is because it just sounds so normal to me. It only hit me when one day, years after I'd left, I decided to tune in to BBC Radio Sheffield. I honestly thought at first that the DJ was putting on a comedy accent for a skit or something. It was only after a few songs that I realised it was his normal voice.

But, like I said, I find it difficult to get people to understand me. I can go into a shop and say something really simple to the shop assistant like, ‘Can you point me in the direction of the six packs of McCoy's please?', and they'll just look at me blankly like I'm speaking in tongues. I have to take it down to monosyllables before I can get anyone to give me directions to the crisps aisle.

I'm not really sure what I can do about it – apart from move back to Sheffield, where everyone understood everything I ever said. Apart from my wife, that is.

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