Tag Archives: zee

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.

Zut alors

When I was a mere glint in America’s eye, our French teacher told the likes of The Beancounter, Broadsheet Benny and I that we would only be fluent in the language when we thought in French. As it was, most of us couldn’t tell our derrieres from our coudes, let alone ponder the existential meaning of life in the tongue of our Gallic cousins. And besides, why would we think in French when it would leave less room for us to consider the important matters of the day, such as Ghostbusters, Panini stickers, the FA Cup draw, and how to snowball teachers and still get away with it?

Being no linguistic expert means that wherever I travel, I’m always translating from the local tongue into English, working out what I need to say, and then translating back into the relevant language. Such a laborious process can tragically turn into an internalised version of Chinese Whispers (or the markedly less impressive ‘Telephone’, as The Special One calls it), where a series of small mistranslations leads to me replying to a waiter asking if I want milk in my coffee with a suggestion that his wife did indeed look like an elephant.

But finally after nearly 35 years of trying, I think I’ve finally cracked it – I’ve mastered a foreign language to the point where I am now able to think and speak in the local tongue without translating into the English in between. Admittedly ‘American’ may be more of a dialect than a language, but you try living in a country that refuses to pronounce the ‘t’ in ‘water’ and see if you still feel the same then.

Today in a phone conversation with an American colleague, I managed to suggest (without even missing a beat) a series of non-specific options by using the phrase “we’ll need to go back to them with ‘ex’, ‘why’ and ‘zee’”. I was part way through the next sentence by the time I realised what I’d done, and had to stop myself and drop a random ‘zed’ into the conversation just to reiterate my Britishness.

Then on the way home I saw a billboard for the Home Run Derby. I have no idea what one of those is, although I suspect it involves slightly overweight men playing big boys rounders. The point is that I looked at the sign and wondered idly to myself what a ‘home run durr-bee’ was. That’s despite almost half my family having been born and raised in the East Midlands town of Derby, with its British pronunciation of ‘darr-bee’.

I can’t work out whether I’m proud or disturbed.

Ironically, the comfort with language won’t last as I’m off to France next week for a week of relaxation in the sun, and I’ll suddenly be back to struggling in a foreign tongue. Here’s hoping I can get my fair share of coffee and croissants without inadvertently reminding the waiting staff of the grey large eared mammal-esque qualities of their spouse, eh?