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To America, land of opportunity (for those with a sexy British RP)

July 1, 2010

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a man (or woman) in possession of an accent originating in the British Isles must be thoroughly fascinating to Americans. While this corruption of Austen’s great opening line is perhaps not as witty as I might like to think, it is decidedly, almost frighteningly true. I have spent quite a lot of time in North America; as I child I often stayed with relatives in New England (what I was raised to think of as “The Colonies”…), and now as an adult, I seem to find myself returning to the “New World” remarkably frequently. While I have become relatively familiar and comfortable with the various American twangs and bizarre turns of phrase, Americans seem forever surprised by my own vocal utterances. I remember as a very young child attempting to explain to one of my American cousins what it was I meant by a “Zebra Crossing”. I did not refer to them as such while in the states for the rest of my childhood, as not only do Americans find the term quaint, they also laugh at what they consider to be an entirely foolish pronunciation of “zebra”. What I learned from this experience was that not only did Americans sound different from British people, but also that they didn’t exactly speak the same language. It has since become a bit of a game for me to seek out these oddities of American English, and learn them so that I can either blend into, or stand out from American culture as I so desire.

When my intention is to blend in, I make use of my New England accent and attempt to avoid what Americans would refer to as “Briticisms” (or “Britishisms”, but try saying it three times fast). While I like to think that I am very successful in carrying off my disguise, I do find myself occasionally in a state of confusion upon discovering some new lack of clear translation between British and American English. For example, I thoroughly confused a friend by telling him not to leave his car “ticking over” — it turns out that the Americans call this “idling”, which upon further consideration appears to be perhaps the better descriptive term.

Although I do spend a large amount of my time in the States “blending in”, I have found that my Britishness, when used appropriately, can become essentially a super power. While at home, a clean, sophisticated Received Pronunciation tends to get me called a stuck up prig, in America, land of opportunity, it often has the effect of expediting service in most restaurants, coffee shops, and other places of business. A proper RP is not entirely necessary, but it is particularly effective if assumed at least moderately realistically, as Americans are exposed to this institutionally soulless accent most frequently, through their incessant watching of television and film (or through listening to the occasional radio broadcast).

Since RP exudes such an air of polish and priggish sophistication, it is not appropriate for all situations. Over the years I have developed a fairly wide spectrum of different accents and personas. It can be quite striking to observe the effects of a short phrase, peppered with highly idiomatic British slang such as for example, “Why don’t we have a quick butchers at that little shop where those bleeding smugglers were done by the police”. Americans don’t have the faintest idea what this sentence means, but they find it completely irresistible (for you American readers: butcher’s hook = look, bleeding=common expletive, and to be “done” by the police does not mean what you think it does, but rather means essentially, “to be caught”). Such phrases can be wonderful conversation starters, or enliveners. If I decide to make someone’s acquaintance, I find this sort of more proletarian manner of speech to be highly effective in developing peoples’ interest in me.

Despite the fact that I receive great enjoyment from of cultivating different accents and styles of speech, I must admit that Americans do not have a very good ear for variations in the British accent itself. In fact, I have discovered that Americans even have great difficulty noting the differences between an Australian accent and a British one. Therefore, it is not absolutely necessary for one to be too precise with the inflection and pronunciation of the words — but I take pride in doing things properly, even if the audience is ignorant.

No matter what the situation, I am repeatedly struck by the powerful impression my speech can have on the majority of the American population. This is not to say that Americans are in any way inferior to those of us from the UK (one need only consider the superiority of American plumbing to see how untrue such a belief would be — I mean honestly, are they the only country that truly understands plumbing!?), but to point out (in a not particularly original manner) the amazing appeal of a British accent for the American people. I would not be surprised if there have been studies done in this area. I suppose it has something to do with how very young the country is — they must still look to England as the older, wiser parent. They may have pushed aside the paternal hand, but still look up to the former protector.

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From → Accents, America, England

5 Comments
  1. Hi, Taylor, what’s with the Twitter about comments from angry Americans? OK, maybe the the last two sentences in the final paragraph were a bit too much (for some), as well as the paragraph before that, but it is all clearly a joke. I could write pages about sticking my foot in my mouth in England — and that was with 3- and 5-year-olds! I had no idea there was such a big difference in vocabulary but there is. In the end we have our laughs, each learns a little bit about the other, life goes on.
    Yes, English accents are delectable, as are Scottish, Welsh, Irish, Australian, New Zealand(ish) …
    Please don’t stop writing!
    Can I help in any way with the editing you need?

  2. Don’t worry Jamie, I had just been getting some jabs from friends who were pretending to take my jokes seriously, so I decided to get back at them a bit with that twitter update.
    I do so love the english language in all shapes and forms, and it is always fun to discover the little (and big) differences between different verities. I am always shocked to discover that Americans do not know what I mean by terms that I don’t even consider the least bit strange, such as “boiled sweets” or “public school”.

    Thanks for offering help, but I think I’m ok — I was just a bit unnerved to reread this post and discover some very stupid mistakes. Sometimes I am shocked by my ability to write something that is completely wrong and not notice it!

    And thank you for reading — I do so appreciate having a reader such as you!

    • I was trained to be an editor, Taylor, and was taught to read everything backwards to see if it was correct. Normally you can look at things ten, 20 times and still not see a mistake until the moment it is in print.Your brain tends to know what to expect and compensates automatically for errors. Hence, the reading backwards. The good thing about blogs is you can sneak back in and correct errors.

      “Public school” got me, too. It just didn’t make sense. If this subject ever comes up in mixed (US vs British) company, I always have to question it because I am not sure if the British person is compensating for the Americans or not. Very confusing!

      I’m looking forward (impatiently, as ever) to your next post.

  3. That was a wicked good post. See that was me using my New England accent.

  4. Ha, thanks for reading, Amanda!
    Having spent a large portion of my childhood in rural New England, I am very familiar with the accent. I remember afternoons spent at the village barber shop listening to the old farmers talk. Now THAT was an education for a young boy…

    Your blog looks like great fun. I grew up with a lot of crafts around me, and even tried my hand at crochet when I was quite little!

    If you want to be kept updated as to new posts, be sure to subscribe (upper right-hand side of the page). And you can follow me on twitter http://bit.ly/aOFG7D and on facebook at http://bit.ly/dhMNLH.

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