Sounds

by Helen ~ November 16th, 2011. Filed under: Uncategorized.

[Note to those reading: I started these posts when I was in Bath and am finishing them during fall semester, hence the confusing dates on my posts.]

 

This is just a brief message about my accent:

I’m not putting it on.

 

The problem with being raised in one culture where people speak one way then participating in a culture where people speak a different way is that I have access to two modes of discourse. One iteration of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis tells us that our linguistic usage influences how we conceive of the world. Some people have even gone so far as to say that it is possible to have different personalities that go with each language–that is to say, people behave differently based upon which language they are speaking.

The difference between my American English and my British English is generally fairly subtle. Most of the words are the same: sometimes they are arranged, spelt, or pronounced differently, and I use some phrases that are not necessarily mutually intelligible to Americans and the English. But I think I do behave differently and even reflexively think about different things when I am speaking in different accents. I feel uncomfortable speaking to Americans in an English accent and vice-versa. It seems wrong to pronounce “scone” as “scOWNS” when it should be “scONS,” ridiculous to talk about Enid Blyton’s Mallory Towers┬áseries with an American accent and weird to try to explain 30 Rock┬áto an English audience.

Being in Bath has been confusing because although I have been mostly amongst British people when we’re out exploring, I am always with Americans. When I hear a cashier in the shops speaking to me in an English accent, I’ll respond in an English accent. If, a moment later, a friend interrupts the transaction to ask a question, sometimes I will reply in an English accent or an American one. Sometimes I haven’t been paying attention to what one of my American friends has been saying and I’ll reply with something in an English accent. It makes me uncomfortable, and I think it’s irritating to the Americans I’m with. There were a few times on this trip where I called out a friend or two about their pronunciation because it was an attempt at British English that fell short of any accent with which I was familiar. Most of the British people I know are fairly sensitive about imitations of how they speak because people from other countries are unaware of the vast majority of accents that the UK contains. Irish is not Scottish is not Welsh is not Geordie is not Cockney is not Liverpudlian is not West Country is not Cornish is not West Midlands. And none of those define my accent, which is East Anglian. I think that some of my friends were sick of never being able to blend in the way I was able to, so they tried to do an accent that sounded, to their ears, close to mine.

I understand the impulse: even as they feel that I am able to pass as an Englishperson, I am constantly aware of the ways in which their influence, and the influence of my American accent, make it impossible for me to fully pass here. I love that I’m here with my friends, please don’t misunderstand me: it just means that I am constantly muddling my words. Sometimes I sound American, sometimes English, and I find it hard to control. It is unsettling to feel my relationship to language complicating itself the longer I am here.

I hope my friends realize that I’m not putting the English accent on to disassociate myself from them or to seem more English. The sounds I make are, for the most part, involuntary, or are in response to factors that I do not control. I think I would choose to use one over the other here if I could: the mixture of my two accents is complicating my relationship to this trip, and to my two cultures, immensely.

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