Sunday, May 26, 2013


I've been living in England for nearly four consecutive years now (I started grad school in September of 2009, back in the noughts). I'm okay with this in principle--I've even gotten to the point where I'm comfortable in saying that I live here. I have a home that is my home--it is not school-managed student digs or theatre-managed intern housing or a retired battleship I have to share with a lunatic old woman--it is my home and I can paint the walls and do whatever I want with the garden. (So like a sucker I plant tulips and tomatoes.) It is a furnished rented house, so I'm stuck with furniture that I'm not hugely thrilled about, and I get a guilty twinge whenever I think about cutting down the oversized holly trees, but just like my job, my home for the first time ever does not come with an expiration date. I really do live here, and after my most recent stint in the Ukba Shaman's hut, I really am on track to indefinite leave to remain.

So it should come as no surprise to me that, after living here for four years, having all-local friends and even marrying a boy from Eltham, I am starting to blend in a bit. In particular, I'm starting to sound funny. It's a really awkward transition to experience, and I don't think it's like puberty or building a shed--it may never finish. On a regular basis, I catch myself saying things I don't expect myself to say, using phrasing that feels correct but alien, and making sounds that are frankly jarring.

And I do mean catch myself--I regularly hear what I'm saying, then get distracted for a few minutes while my brain asks me why I just said what I said, or questions my accent. Did I do that on purpose? Was that mimicry or did I say that honestly? Am I forcing this? I don't remember going out of my way to pronounce this the local way but it would appear that I've done it. What does it say about me if it was unintentional? Is it better somehow? Does anyone else notice this?

What's worse is when I hear distinctly southern pronunciations slip out. Not only is my gut reaction to this nearly always shame (it usually goes away fairly quickly) but then my paranoid brain then feels the need to spend the next half-hour carefully reviewing everything I've said in the past day to check for other slips that might have gotten through. Did I say 'pound' with a nasally-voiced 'ow'? (like the way southern kids hammer 'crayon' into a dented 'crown'?) Dammit I said Basil like a tourist again! I should go a day without talking, as punishment. At least I didn't ask my colleague if I could borrow her ink pin. Pee-un. Peyun. It's bad enough that I still have to stop and arrange my syllables before saying Leicester Square.  How is it words like 'phenomenological' 'methylene diphenyl diisocyanate' and Viognier can roll effortlessly off my tongue, but I would rather crawl in a hole than pronounce Worcestershire or Southwark in front of a Londoner?

Trouble is, sounding Southern has always been shameful for me, and not just in Europe. I've been mocked and teased, usually light-heartedly, for the odd bits of drawl that crept into my personal phonology over my twenty years of residence in South Carolina. I think this shame is rooted in my awareness that the Southern accent is widely considered an indicator of gormless stupidity--from grinning morons in cartoons to bible-thumping ignoramuses in prime-time to misogynist blowhards on C-SPAN, Southern voices are never associated with intelligence, worldliness, or the twenty-first century. I've never sounded exceptionally southern, even as a kid, but I did go to school in SC from first grade through the end of university so I was bound to pick up something. My parents were not local to the area where I grew up, and while my dad did grow up in the heart of redneck country, years of (shame-based) practice have granted him the power to only sound Southern when he needs to. Mom just sounds American--one might assume she's from Ohio, or...wherever everyone on the nightly news comes from. WhiteBreadton, USA. I can only thank my parents for not sounding Carolinian--as much as I learned from my teachers, and as much respect as I have for other members of that community, I don't think I would have gotten where I am today with that accent. It just carries too much cultural baggage.

I am sincerely okay with sounding like a generic American--at least I'm not chim-chim-cheree'ing my way into getting punched in the face by a neckless Catforder who finks I'm up to summat. But on some level I believe I expect myself to have gone native by now, that I should have effortlessly received my pronunciation and settled into my career reading audiobooks for Penguin. Fact is, I don't even know if my voice Has changed, much less if it has changed gradually or organically. I know I occasionally try out a pronunciation in public, if I'm fairly confident that it would sound less weird than if I deliberately Americanised it, but other times words and phrases just fall out of me like apples from a birch tree--some perfect, some rotten, all unexpected.

For the curious and patient reader, I'll include a list here of words that I've noticed I consistently say differently than I did four years ago, as well as a list of those words that stubbornly either sound stupid when the British style does come out, or I simply know have not altered noticeably. Enjoy.

Firmly Changed
tomato (a from 'automotive')
pasta (first 'a' from 'absolute')
4x2 (2x4)
1220x2440 (4x8) (I've gotten pretty chill with the metric system)
café (caaf)
courgette (zucchini)
aubergine (eggplant)
motorway (freeway, highway)
sterile (steh-riil, as in 'all riled up'--this comes up more often than you might expect now that I'm a first aider)
Nissan (nis-san, with an i as in 'missive' and san from San Francisco.)
Nike (niik, like Mike)
Adidas (AH-di-das, again with the 'a' from 'automotive)
router ('ou' like Moose, unless I'm referring to the high-speed carving tool, in which case it is an 'ow')
wool (yarn)
Biro (cheap ballpoint pen, with the i from 'isocyanate')
Glasgow, Moscow (no cows involved, just the O from the end of Monaco)
leisure (like pleasure)
advertisement, advert (ad-Vert-is-men, ad-vurt)
hoover (vacuum-cleaner, though I've also replaced 'to vacuum' with 'to hoove' which I don't think anyone else says.)
lift (elevator)
herb (voiced H)
solder (voiced L, like 'soldier')
clerk, Berkshire (clark, Barkshire)
borough (bur-ruh, as opposed to buh-roh)

I'm Never Quite Sure How These are Going to Sound
lavender, radiator, spanner, etc. (sometimes the r shows up, sometimes it doesn't bother)
coriander (sometimes this is cilantro)
yoghurt (sometimes this is yo-gurt, sometimes it's yohg-urt, luckily I've also realized I'm lactose-intolerant and don't use this product)
think (this occasionally comes out as 'fink'--I find this embarrassing.)

Stuck in the Past
"Yes ma'am" (full, long, two-syllable 'a', whole shebang. Usually when a colleague or student calls my name. It has taken considerable restraint, but I don't usually ask "wha'choo want, baby?" when a student visits my office. I don't even know where I got the impulse. Lunch ladies (school dinner ladies) used to ask me this when I was a kid, but I never sought to emulate them. It just sort-of...appeared when I started working on Sigsbee. Somehow working with children in Baltimore gave me the inclination to use teacher-talk, and Fort Thrill teacher-talk is all I had to go on.)

It is also noteworthy that my spouse has begun to regularly slip into American pronunciation and idiom. From Basil to "I'm good" to TV, I'm rubbing off on him nearly enough to offset my drift into British-ism.