Tag Archives: accent

Losing my voice

It’s probably fair to say that my greatest fear as an expat is losing my accent. Not that my accent is anything to get excited about, or a strange dialect that only three people in the world speak. But the idea of waking up one morning with a strange mid-Atlantic twang is enough to bring me out in a cold sweat.

A Brit Out Of Water Sr was in the city last week, and fortunately it appears that my distinctive Britishness is still firmly intact. I say ‘fortunately’ as otherwise he would probably have spent four days shaking his head and muttering something along the lines of “I used to have a son” under his breath. Being able to explain the nuances of baseball while sitting in a bar watching the Yankees play the Mets is a healthy sign of assimilation; using words such as ‘geez’ or ‘awesome’ without the faintest sense of tongue in cheek irony is a step too far.

As I may have mentioned before though, my ability to spot the American accent is fading, as I slowly get used to a new sense of normality. A couple of times in the last few weeks, I’ve had to ask The Special One whether a particular actor on screen is American. In retrospect, the fact that they were wearing a big stars and stripes T-shirt, carrying a rolled-up copy of the constitution, and sitting underneath a pink neon sign that said “For the avoidance of doubt, I am an American” should have been a bit of a giveaway. But now the American accent is the norm, and it’s the exceptions I’m more reaily able to identify.

After yesterday though, I’m worried that my British friends and family may be humouring me about my accent. Perhaps I’m turning to the dark side after all, and everybody’s too polite to say anything?

Sitting in training in the office, I realiszed that the trainer was British, and while we waited for the rest of the attendees to turn up, I engaged her in conversation for a few minutes about various things. Not quite able to place her accent exactly, I asked where she was from.

“I’m from a place called Nottingham,” she said. “You know, Sherwood Forest, Robin Hood and Maid Marian? It’s in the centre of England.”

I managed to stem my tears, you’ll be pleased to know, although it was almost too much when she looked at me as she told delegates to let her know if any of her British-isms were confusing.

Maybe I am subconsciously a language chameleon, who takes on the speaking style of all those around him? An ability to blend in could admittedly be useful if I ever launch a new career as a conman.

That said, it doesn’t augur well for forthcoming trips to Tennessee and Newcastle…

What does a man have to do to get a beer around here?

Ordering alcohol is never easy for me when I’m in the southern United States. I’m asked for ID on a regular basis, despite the fact that I turned 21 many moons ago, and showing any barman or waiter my British passport generally produces a look of bafflement and wonder. I guess it might be Tennessee’s way of attempting to stop me from drinking in the first place, given that the state still has a number of dry counties. Or no-go zones, as I prefer to call them.

But sometimes all it takes to get a drink is abject humiliation.

On a flight from Washington DC to Knoxville on Wednesday evening, the flight attendant and her trolley made their way down the aisle of the tiny plane offering free fizzy popsoda, or alcoholic drinks for $6. No tiny bags of free snacks, sadly – one man who asked for some pretzels received a slightly embarrassed reply of “Sorry, United got rid of them a while ago.”

A couple of people had opted for a late night beer by the time the trolley got to me, and after five hours of hanging around airports, I decided to get the Thanksgiving party started in a similar way (safe in the knowledge that my passport was in my back pocket, in case any age-related concerns were brought up). Putting aside my annoyance at paying six dollars for something available for less than a dollar in a supermarket, I waited for my turn.

Attendant: “Can I get you a drink from the trolley?”

Brit Out Of Water: “That would be great. Can I have a beer, please?”

Attendant: “Pardon?”

Brit Out Of Water: “A beer please.”

Attendant: “Sorry?”

Brit Out Of Water (face reddening as people start to listen in): “A beer.”

Attendant: “What is it you would like sir?”

Brit Out Of Water (desperation setting in as fellow passengers start to laugh): “A beer. You know, a beer. A beer.”

Attendant: “Erm, I’m sorry sir, I don’t think we have…”

[Brit Out Of Water bends down, opens the bottom drawer of the trolley and gesticulates wildly at the cans within]

Attendant: “Oh, a beer! Why didn’t you say…”

Now, I admit that the British tend to pronounce the word that denotes “an alcoholic drink containing water, grain, hops and yeast” as ‘bee-err’ and Americans pronounce it more like ‘byurrrrgh’. But nonetheless, most flyers know that their drinks options are limited to a very few options, and so it wasn’t as if I was going to be asking for a glass of Château Pétrus (1929 preferably, although I hear that the 1961 is drinking very well at the moment). But that British accent just keeps getting in the way of day-to-day life, it would seem.

On the way back yesterday, a different attendant approached with the trolley on our delayed flight back to New York.

Attendant: “Would you like a drink sir?”

Brit Out Of Water: “I’ll have a Heineken, please.”

Short not sweet

As I’ve said before, sometimes it’s easy for me to forget that I’m in America. Aside from the fact that I moved here from London and one city is generally pretty much like another, it’s difficult to avoid the fact that wherever you are in the world, you slowly get used to things. As another UK-to-US migrant Fish Without A Bicycle recently said in the comments on this blog, she’s found herself abandoning her knife in favour of just using a fork despite her better efforts. I imagine that the crumbling of the British Empire many years ago began in a similarly (seemingly innocuous) fashion.

One thing that has definitely lessened in my consciousness is the US accent. Unless I hear a particularly extreme accent, the days when I quietly used to think to myself “for some reason I appear to be surrounded by Americans” seem to have long gone.

But every so often, somebody will say something – or more often, I’ll read it – and I will be brought kicking and screaming to the reality that I am in a country that speaks a language that is sometimes as foreign to me as, say, Cantonese.

Don’t get me wrong, I know that English is a fluid living language that continuously evolves. And the UK can hardly be considered innocent of all crimes against language. It’s not easy to be proud of a country whose kids have invented the word ‘gopping’ for ‘disgusting’, after all.

But in New York it seems that every existing word needs to be shortened in a bid to use as few characters as possible. It’s almost as if some people believe they are taxed for every letter they use in conversation. Or maybe it’s just an attempt to limit any movement of the mouth that’s not for stuffing popcorn in?

I guess I don’t mind some of the more comic-book shortenings such as ‘shrooms’ for mushrooms, or even ‘toon’ for cartoon. But is there really any need for ‘gator’ or ‘roach’? Does it really save you that much time?

My current bete-noire is the replacement of neighbourhood with ‘nabe’. Every time I see it, I cringe with embarrassment and shame. Even news organiszations are using it now, such as the New York Post sub-headline here. In reaction, I might just have to start lengthening all my words, becoming some overly-verbose English buffoon who takes ten minutes just to ask where the nearest bank is.

Now if you don’t mind, I’m off to ask the superintendent of the condominium in which I am currently residing to give me directions as to where I might catch an omnibus. I’ll be back for some more weblogging soon.