Time to train the voice


Today I want to discuss what for many people is the greatest threat to face Irish culture this century, or at least since the founding of the BBC. I'm referring, of course, to the "DART accent".

The DART accent is so-called because social historians believe its earliest occurrence coincided with the establishment of the Dublin Area Rapid Transit system in 1984. However, there is no known reason why railway engineering should affect speech patterns - with the obvious exception of station announcement systems which render the human voice intelligible only to dogs - and many observers believe the accent emerged only after the increase in property prices near the track.

On the other hand, DART-speak is not confined to the east coast of Dublin. It has been recorded as far west as Offaly, where there is no DART and no prospect of the line's extension, barring an extraordinary series of by-election reverses for the current Government.

As many of you will be painfully aware, the accent occurs in its most vicious form in certain vowel sounds: particularly the first vowel sound in "southside", the last vowel sound in "Booterstown" and nearly all the vowel sounds in "traffic is bumper to bumper outbound as far as the Maynooth Road roundabout". (Interestingly, the definitive DART vowel sound can also be heard - twice - in the term "vowel sound". This may or may not be significant.)

It could be argued that the accent is not an accent at all. People in the affected parts of Dublin were talking funny for years before the DART - saying "rowd" instead of "road" for instance. But the particular mutation that occurred in the mid-1980s was a reluctance to pronounce the sound "ow" - as in as in "how", "now" and "brown cow" - the way God and Sir John Gielgud intended.

Not that this would be a big problem, except for the effect it has on many listeners. For reasons medicine has yet to explain, the DART accent attacks the central nervous system of people over 25, upsetting sensitive teeth and, in severe cases, causing muscle spasms and foaming at the mouth.

One of the criticisms frequently levelled at DART-speakers is that their accent is artificial - unlike traditional Irish accents, which grew organically out of their geographic locations, usually for sound practical reasons.

For example, the languid Donegal accent made famous by Daniel O'Donnell is clearly designed - like the local knitwear - to conserve energy during those long, harsh winters north of Ballyshannon. Similarly, the elongated vowels used by the commercially-minded people of the south border region evolved to allow time to consider possible financial angles in conversations with outsiders. On the other hand, people in the midlands often omit both "t"s from the word "butter", for example, a phenomenon thought to date from the 17th-century settlement of Cromwell's soldiery, with their puritan distaste for flashy consonants. And so on.

There is no such justification for the DART accent. But possibly what annoys non-DART speakers so much about this way of speaking is that it is impossible to pin down. Attempts to ridicule it are often defeated by the inability of would-be mimics to reproduce the sound that annoys them, and it has proved impossible to come up with a written representation.

For example, "ryndabyte" is the nearest you can get to a visual description of the DART word for a circular traffic-control device, but this spelling is in fact a phonetic rendering of the word as pronounced by the British royal family. That in itself is interesting, because the royals' accent is generally attributed to their reluctance to open their mouths wide during speech, a particular problem for Prince Charles (though not for the Duke of Edinburgh, who often opens his wide enough to put both feet in it).

This does at least raise the possibility that the major dental work which many children of the post-DART generation have undergone could be a factor in the accent's creation. But it also in turn raises a spectre that haunts many parents with ordinary, healthy accents: that through absolutely no fault of theirs, their children could grow up speaking DART.

Unfortunately, there is not much anyone can do to prevent this, except to encourage primary-level students to do vocal exercises involving those key "ow" sounds. (Many of us schooled in the pre-DART education system were made to say "Ow!" by teachers at least once every day, and one can't help wondering if the DART accent was a direct result of the demise of corporal punishment).

Meanwhile, what is to be done with the many people who already speak this way? The sensible thing would seem to be to give them work which doesn't involve communication - jobs as railway station announcers come to mind. But instead, the accent is everywhere that you turn on television and radio, and a friend of mine who I think may be taking it all a bit too seriously says some of the voices in his head have started using it.

I'm sure there's a simple reason why young people are talking this way. They sense it annoys their parents, so it's probably an act of rebellion, or something like that. But whatever it is, I have a heartfelt appeal for these young people and it's this: No matter what the pressures are. No matter what your friends think. No matter how uncool it might be. Please, please, please, kids. Just say "ow".