Wednesday, 22 October 2008

On having an accent

Back in the olden days, when it was a major undertaking to get from, say, Bristol to London, or even Bristol to Weston-super-Mare, and so most people didn't bother, it is said that you could place people within 10 miles or so by their accent. Now that we've built motorways and everyone spends their days whizzing up and down them, you have to go a bit further to get your accent noticed, but moving 3700 miles from Bristol to Texas certainly does the trick.

Of course, I don't really have an accent - I speak quite normally, thank you very much, but everyone else talks funny around here, so naturally I stand out as different. It's been a strange experience to be marked out the minute I open my mouth. About the second thing everyone says to me is, "You're not from around here" or, "Where are you from?" Even though we talk the same language (well, almost), the way I speak says I'm a newbie, a stranger, something exotic.

Fortunately the third thing people say is usually, "Oh, I love your accent!" followed by an account of their friend or second cousin or whoever who lives in England, or a tale of their visit to the UK in about 1976, and how much they liked it there. It's quite humbling what a good press the UK gets over here, considering that the respect isn't particularly mutual. And I have to say, I much prefer it to, "Oh, what a horrible accent!" followed by a summary of Britain's failings. Makes life a lot easier.

There are, however, a few difficulties in communication, especially on the phone. I thought Graham was exaggerating when he said he rang up to order a pizza once and no one could understand what he was saying. Then I got over here and had a memorable conversation which went something like this:

"Hi, I'm phoning for details about the job you had advertised in the bakery window. Could you give me some idea of the hours and so on?"
"Ummm..... well we have chocolate, carrot cake, white cakes with flowers..."
"Sorry, I was asking about the job? You want someone to work for you?"
(long pause) "Uh... you need to order something like that in advance"
(defeated) "OK, thank you very much."
(hangs up and crosses that possibility off the list)

I've also had to practice emphasising the r a bit more in Martha (Marrrr-tha instead of Mah-tha), otherwise no one gets my name, and of course White over here comes out something like Whaaate, but I can't quite make myself abuse the letter i that much yet. Still, two more years - I shall move back to the UK and be greeted by, "Hey, where are you from? Why do you talk with that awful drawl? Can you believe the idiot that those Americans elected for president?..."

On second thoughts, maybe I'll just stay here and learn to talk like a native. Howdy, y'all!

1 comment:

Johnboy in the USA said...

Yup, get used to it. I let Kristal do the talking, because any attempt of mine to engage in complicated negotiations inevitably lead to blank looks until she jumps in to translate. It's strange that nobody ever thinks, 'oh, this person has a weird accent, I'll ask them to repeat themselves', they just carry on as if they know exactly what you said. You can't just blame it on American ignorance of the wider world, though, as I've had plenty of experiences of having zero clue what somebody has just asked me. Thanks for the Wedding party invite.
Love
John