8. Through the Looking Glass

In which Humpty Dumpty meets Inspector Clouseau and an English chanteuse

Alice is confused. Her interlocutor is speaking English, but not as we know it. Lewis Carroll takes up the story:

“I don’t know what you mean by ‘glory’,” Alice said.

Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. “Of course you don’t – till I tell you. I meant ‘there’s a nice knock-down argument for you!’”

“But ‘glory’ doesn’t mean ‘a nice knock-down argument’,” Alice objected.

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.”

“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”

“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master – that’s all.”

Alice was too much puzzled to say anything; so after a minute Humpty Dumpty began again. “They’ve a temper some of them – particularly verbs: they’re the proudest – adjectives you can do anything with, but not verbs – however, I can manage the whole lot of them! Impenetrability! That’s what I say!”

Impenetrability indeed. For Humpty Dumpty, words mean what he chooses them to mean. If he says glory means ‘a nice knock-down argument,’ then so it does. But as we see from this extract from Through the Looking Glass, Humpty’s approach – though undoubtedly entertaining – does not necessarily favour good communication.

We need a standard to measure what a word means. As we saw in chapter 2, this means dictionaries – and they have existed for millennia. But if a dictionary measures words, with what instrument do we measure the sounds of speech?

We are all familiar with the concept of accent. There is in the UK perhaps the greatest diversity of accents in the English-speaking world. Even the untrained ear can easily distinguish a Mancunian from a Liverpudlian, even though the two cities are only 30 miles apart.

Henry Higgins could identify a person’s accent to within 5 miles. He was a fictional character, but the ability to recognise speech patterns with such precision is real. During the search for so-called Yorkshire Ripper, the police received a call – later revealed to be a hoax – from a man claiming to be the serial killer. “I’m Jack,” said the voice. Accent specialists were called in and they determined that the speaker was from Sunderland. Even to British ears, the differences in the accents of north-east England are often too subtle to tell apart, but the experts were right, leading the police to concentrate their search in the wrong place. The real killer was from Sheffield, 100 miles further south.

Accent then is a fascinating thing and film and radio often use it to create a mood or for humorous ends. Hollywood baddies often have British accents, the crisp cadences of Edinburgh speech are the ones most likely to elicit a feeling of trust, Peter Sellers hilariously emphasised the incompetence of his comic creation, Inspector Clouseau, by speaking in an exaggerated French accent.

So we can see a pathway into improving our accent here: mimicry and humour. Perhaps the best way of getting near an authentic accent is parody. If we are capable of imitating a Geordie or a Texan, then we can use the same method to speak better Finnish or Urdu.

But we want to be more Meryl Streep than Dick Van Dyke. The latter has the unenviable reputation of having attempted the worst onscreen accent of all time, although a recent film set in Ireland has apparently made a valiant effort to deprive Van Dyke of his crown. And this, despite the hiring of expert dialect coaches.

Streep however has been widely praised for the accuracy and authenticity of her portrayal of different accents. During one press conference in Northern Ireland, she was asked how she did it. She paused a moment and replied: “I listen,” pronouncing the first syllable of the second word with the distinctive open e sound characteristic of the Ulster accent.

So we too have to listen. We mustn’t assume that our new language is just 26 English sounds arranged in a funny order.



  • The alphabet, scripts and syllabaries

  • A closer look at the IPA alphabet

  • Pronunciation and accent

  • Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery: mimicry without malice

  • A question of balance

  • The power of music

This is an extract from our must-read book about language learning, THE LANGUAGE SECRET. Browse the site for more extracts from the other chapters and information about what they contain. You can also purchase a copy of the book by clicking on the button at the bottom of the page.