Life in the UK: By your accent ye shall know them

Lately PyelotBoy has been critiquing my pronunciation – “correcting” it to the British equivalent. Now I know some Americans who have lived in the UK for a long time have no problem with acquiring a mid-Atlantic accent. Some simply can’t help it. Some aspire to it, seeing it as a step up in terms of class (Received Pronunciation, of course).

Photo credit: by AndreaMBC on Flickr

Photo credit: AndreaMBC on Flickr

Not me. I was happy to lose some of my nasal Midwestern inflection when I moved to Washington, DC when in my twenties, but a decade later I had come to terms with my identity, so changing how I spoke felt like a step too far. And yet, when I first moved to the UK I was painfully conscious about opening my mouth. Any foray into a shop would label me as other – as foreign – as soon as I uttered a word. So I would keep shtum (US: stay silent) if I could, and would wait for the look of pity or surprise when I asked for my change or said thank you.

But my many years of living in the UK, especially my years in multicultural London, have cured me, thankfully, of this self-conscious standing outside of myself. In London, I’m just one of many accents, and frankly, not terribly interesting at that. In my church of 170 people or so, we have 20 nationalities representing the continents of Africa, the Americas, Asia, and Europe. A taste of heaven!

Sometimes when I’m outside of London, however, the reality of being a Yank in Britain comes back to me in a rush. I spent some time writing in Eastbourne a few years ago, reveling in the quiet of a friend’s house and generally speaking to no one but my family by phone. The sole person I talked to was in the grocery store (UK: supermarket), and sure enough, the bloke asked me where I was from and how long I was visiting. Or when I visited a friend in Carlisle and we ordered pizza, the delivery person queried me about my accent.

In some parts, I guess, I’m still an anomaly. But in my own home I thought I would not face questions or ridicule. Think again.

What about you? Has your accent morphed over the years? For an amusing question-and-answer column in the Guardian about a New Yorker seeking to acquire a Southern English accent, see here. My advice? Don’t even try.

4 Responses

  1. I can empathise a little, Amy. My Australian accent has never been broad but it won’t die soon. It doesn’t seem to be an issue in the UK very much (and having only arrived in 2011, questions on ‘how long have you been here’ aren’t too annoying yet). What is a challenge is visiting another country like Italy and answering the question with a convoluted ‘I’m originally from Australia but now live in England…’ With language differences, things invariably get tangled.

    At least folks don’t mistake your accent for you being a New Zealander! Then again, you’re from Canada, right? 🙂

  2. Sheridan, ha! You’ve actually touched on an interesting point about how we can easily mix up accents. When I lived in DC, I could hardly understand some Southern US accents, so when we had a visiting Aussie to our office, I thought at first he was a Brit! I lumped all “other” accents of those speaking English into one category. Now I’m rather pleased that my ear has developed, and I can usually hear the difference between a Kiwi and your lot, and I can CERTAINLY tell the difference between a Canadian and a Yank. But I wouldn’t have been able to do the latter until I moved here – again, my ear wasn’t developed. (And maybe I had some of that fabled US arrogance!) Now I always ask someone, “Are you from North America?” I think one of my favo(u)rite accents is actually the South African one…

  3. So – how does PyelotBoy get on with the semi-scouse accent my husband has? He will, of course, tell you that it is completely different from scouse as he is from “The Wirral”. It is a lot softer than those who live in central Liverpool.
    The UK regional accents are SO varied. I adore listening to our students around the country and marvel at the differences in them. there are at least 3 different Scottish accents, too!

    1. You know, Alison, he never seems to comment about H’s accent… He is good with them though; he can tell if someone’s from Northern Ireland before I can! I agree that there’s so very many accents about in the UK, and especially for such a small place geographically (don’t take offense – I’m thinking in comparison with the States, for instance!). Makes it rich and interesting.

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