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Why is the Birmingham accent so difficult to mimic?


With a second series of Birmingham-set drama Peaky Blinders in the pipeline, the show's creator Steven Knight has admitted the city's accent is "very difficult to get right". What is it that makes it so hard to master, asks Brummie-accented Lucy Townsend.

The accent frequently comes bottom in polls of people's favourites. It is rarely heard on television or in films unless they are comedies.

It is also rarely pronounced correctly - the rounded vowel sounds and the hard "ing" are often emphasised like a caricature. Phrases like "alroight bab" and "trarabit" appear in screen versions of Brummie far more than in real life.

Steven Knight, the Birmingham-born writer of the BBC's post World War One gangster series Peaky Blinders, has described the accent as "harder even than Geordie" to get right.

It's considered so difficult to master that production companies have shied away from setting dramas in Birmingham: "There's been a big black hole in the middle of the country as far as TV production goes."

Peaky Blinders marked a change of approach. As Cillian Murphy dropped his soft Irish lilt for Tommy Shelby's understated Brummie, he demonstrated that the accent could be serious, subtle and spoken by sharp-minded people.

As a possessor of a Birmingham accent myself, it was a relief - but Peaky Blinders' cadences were not always so well received. My Facebook feed, made up largely of West Midlanders, was telling. "Why do some of them sound Liverpudlian?" asked one friend. "Love it - but why are they speaking like that?" wrote another.

The Guardian called the accents "dodgy", while The Spectator's James Dellingpole, who grew up just outside the city, wrote: "Some sound like a melange of Liverpool and generic northern."

Knight says that it is intentional. "I remember going to Birmingham City matches as a kid and there were these other kids in Small Heath who had their own odd, partly Scouse accent," he told the Birmingham Mail.

But there is another reason for the occasional resemblance to Liverpudlian, according to dialect coach Elspeth Morrison, from Central School of Speech and Drama.

"There tends not to be much movement of the face with the Birmingham accent. Too much facial activity or tightness in the face and you can end up sounding like you are from Liverpool. For Birmingham accents the lips tend to poke forward, so they're quite pouty and rosebud shaped," she says.

image copyrightALAMY
image captionBenny (Paul Henry) from long-running TV soap Crossroads

"It works the other way too. I had a director phone me once saying he had an actress who was meant to be doing a Liverpool accent but she sounded Brummie, I told him to ask her to smile and put a bit of tension in her cheeks - that really helped."

A common misconception is that Birmingham's is a slow accent. Dimwitted Benny from Crossroads did little to help that. And Aston-born Ozzy Osbourne's famous Brummie utterances are hesitant, to say the least.

Then there is the dull rhythm of Gavin from Autoglass and Howard from the Halifax advertisements - characters without subtext giving simple messages.

In an interview last year Knight said that actors often make the accent "a really slow drawl."

"If you hear people talking it's quite a hard, fast, urban accent," he told The Independent.

Murphy "developed Tommy's way of talking which is back to the hard, fast Birmingham accent. It's very intelligible and even an American will be able to understand it."

Brummie for beginners

image captionJulie Walters (from Smethwick)
  • Mucker - if you really like someone
  • Bab/babby - babe / baby (Julie Walters reportedly said that she thought her name was Bab because she was called it so often as a child)
  • Gambol - forward roll
  • Island - traffic roundabout (Examples include Robin Hood island and Spitfire island)
  • Going round the Wrekin - A broader Midlands term, meaning going the long way round (the Wrekin is a hill in Shropshire)
  • Snap - food
  • Tarabit - good bye
  • Got a cob on - to be in a foul mood
  • Go and play up your own end - said to children making too much noise

"I think there is a subtlety to it and it's important not to over-pronounce," says Joe Cole, who plays John Shelby in the drama. "They key is not doing it too over the top."

For the new series an open casting call was held in Birmingham for locals with authentic accents to try out for roles. The queue stretched for about half a mile.

"People aren't exposed to the true accent very much at all, that must be a factor in why people find it hard to mimic without exaggerating it until they sound ridiculous," says Dr Esther Asprey, co-author of ‪West Midlands English‬: ‪Birmingham and the Black Country.‬‬‬‬

"Apart from understanding the technical quirks of the accent, people first have to get through their prejudices - that the Birmingham accent is dull, monotone and working class."

The accent actually has more variance in its cadences than "received" or standard accent-free English.

A question in received English tends to start low, go straight along and rise up at the end. Birmingham instead has a rise-fall-rise intonation.

image copyrightGetty Images
image captionOzzy Osbourne

"There is a melody," adds Morrison.

"With accents that are quite tuneful like Birmingham's, if you get the tune wrong people really notice. It's got a definite and repeating tune, it's a bit like a sing song and that's not something people would necessarily think of when talking about Birmingham speakers."

There are also the rounded vowels. We "loike" counting to "foive", for example - but it is the subtlety in the pronunciation that is often missed.

The city's position near the middle of England means the accent is a curious mixture of regions and styles - it has predominantly northern vowels with some scattered southern ones. While grass and class have a hard a, it is not uncommon for other words like laugh to be drawn out - "larrf".

"When Peaky Blinders was set Birmingham comprised about three different counties," adds Asprey. "There was Warwickshire - which would have been Edgbaston - which had an almost south-western accent - barth (bath), laand (land), and so on. Staffordshire would have been more traditionally Brummie and then there was Shropshire to the north.

"There were also the immigrational influences. Words like 'youse' for example - that is very Irish," she adds.

More from the Magazine

image copyrightGetty Images

"In the pages of Emma, [Jane Austen] offers this damning observation: 'Birmingham is not a place to promise much... One has no great hopes of Birmingham. I always say there is something direful in that sound.'

"To be sure, these are not Austen's own words, but a speech delivered by Mrs Elton, who is a snob, a social climber and an incorrigible name-dropper.

"Her words cause me particular concern, not to say pain and anguish, because I myself come from Birmingham, and since I remain strongly attached to the city where I grew up, I cannot share the negative opinion expressed."

It is also often merged with the Black Country accent - a mistake that can cause annoyance at both ends of the Wolverhampton Road.

Holiday company Hotels4u angered Brummies with their recent advertisement featuring a cartoonish man repeating the tagline, "anything for yow cupcake".

The actor, from Birmingham, accentuated the pronunciation of "yow" - a Black Countryism.

It was branded "offensive" on Twitter and Facebook. While YouTube viewers queried the accent.

"This is the strangest combination ever... Birmingham born and bred yet trying to be a yam-yam," wrote one.

"The Black Country is quite a different accent and people not from the area often mix them up," adds Asprey. "It means the true accent is under represented."

"Black Country preserves a lot of dialect - like the yow, and the aynt - Brummies would say ain't (I ain't doing that). Also of course there's the yam yam name."

The "yam yam" sound is taken from "you are", which is pronounced yo'am - like yam. It is not a phrase used in Birmingham.

Though of course, like all urban accents, Brummie changes from the north to the south of the city, and from one house to the next.

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