Tag Archives: pronunciation

It’s all down hill from here

One thing that I think should always be cherished about the UK is the number of regional accents that co-exist within such a remarkably small place. Given that we’re talking about a country which could practically fit within New York State, it’s pretty astonishing that you can get as diverse range of styles of speech as Brummie (Birmingham), Cockney (London), Geordie (Newcastle), Scouse (Liverpool) and so on. And that’s before you even think about Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Ask a random Brit to identify which part of the country I come from, and I think most of them would probably struggle. Of course, part of that assumption comes from everybody’s belief that they “don’t really have an accent”. Even when that person speaks like someone rejected at the auditions for “Liverpool: The Musical” for being too unintelligible. But really any unambiguous accent I might once upon a time have had has been beaten out of me by years of school, ten years in London, and my current sojourn in New York.

My desire for belonging, however, is such that whenever I make a trip back home (as I did this weekend), my native accent ratchets up a few notches, until I’m sounding a little like Liam Gallagher from Oasis on occasions. It’s an experience that is particularly odd given that I don’t even come from Manchester.

In part, it’s probably a reaction to my abject terror of ever being thought of as having an American accent. Every time I head home, I’ll be part way through a conversation and somebody will inevitably pipe up with “glad to hear that you haven’t lost your British accent”, as if they’ve been expecting me to come back talking like Janice from Friends. Little do they realise that I employ the services of a small Filipino lady who once lived in Chiswick, to follow me around and attach electrodes to my testicles in the event of me saying a-loo-min-um.

Sadly I couldn’t afford the plane ticket for Juanita to join me in the UK this weekend. And while I managed to get through with my reputation largely unscathed, I now have to concede that I am unable to pronounce one particular word in the way that language experts (also known as ‘the English’) intended.

Zed’s dead, baby. Zed’s dead.

Three times during the course of the weekend, I attempted to use the word that has come to represent the 26th letter of the alphabet. Yet whether I was trying to get from A-Z, or was considering the implications of x, y and z, my brain reached into its well thumbed dictionary and provided me with the word ‘zee’.

Each time it happened, I looked at the person I was talking to in order to gauge whether they had noticed. And each time my head dropped as the listener recoiled in horror at the z-bomb that I had just dropped into conversation.

Sure, I attempted to explain that I had been talking about a conversation with an American, or that I had been referencing something that happened to me in New York. And people nodded understandingly. But we all knew that the game was up. After many years of good service, zed is packing up its bags and saying goodbye to its vocabulary chums. It’s a dark day.

One down, 19,999 to go.

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I don’t really talk about personal things on this blog, certainly not in specifics. But I can’t really write about being in the UK this weekend without saying why I was there.

Long-time readers might recall a character within these pages called The Beancounter. His real name is Jonny, and he’s been a great friend to me since we were both 11. And just to be fair to him, the only beans he counts these days are the baked variety that he shovels into his mouth.

On May 4, Jonny’s lovely wife Jo passed away at the all too young age of 32. I spent a few months living with the two of them a few years ago when Jonny and Jo were looking for a new place to live. While they both thought that they were a burden to be taking up a room in my house, little did they realise that I was gutted to see them leave, such were the happy times we’d shared while they were there. What was clear then, and what was clear from the words of the packed church at the service to celebrate her life, is that Jo had a huge impact on everybody that she came into contact with. She was kind, compassionate, funny, smart and great company. Frankly, the world’s a less well-off place without her in it.

Words can’t really do justice to anyone who leaves us far too early, but I couldn’t let Jo’s passing go unmentioned. She will truly be missed.

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.”