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).
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.