Where Is Home … When Your Accent Morphs Into Something Neither Here Nor There

“You’re a long way from home … are you Canadian?”

When I first moved to England four years ago, I sometimes felt a bit shy going into stores or meeting new people in public places, I tended to keep conversation to a minimum which you’d find really funny if you knew how chatty I am. My hesitancy to speak up reminded me of when I lived in Germany and how embarrassed I was when stumbled over language.

It’s funny that even though English is spoken in the US and the UK, some words can have vastly different meanings and pronunciation, both of which can be an opportunity for your listener to have a hearty chuckle at your expense.

Take the word Derby, which is the name of a city here that has come up in conversation before, if I’m supposed to pronounce it as Darby instead of Derby, I think it should be spelled that way. I’ve had this talk a few times with John and it usually ends with me saying something along the lines of, “Am I’m supposed to intuit some other pronunciation other than the obvious one?”

His response is never satisfactory and usually involves Kansas and what he refers to as ” R-Kansas ” instead of pronouncing Arkansas as we would in the US. He keeps using this example to counter those like the one above, while there are many others I can use such as pronouncing Mousehole like Mowzel (Mousehole is a village in Cornwall.) I don’t mind being corrected when these things come up, but the smirking or laughing people do when you say it as written does feel a bit much.

After almost four years of living in the UK, having an accent that makes people pause no longer bothers me nor does the question that always follows … “Are you Canadian?” Ask a Canadian that question and a Brit will tell you how upset they get, but I never mind and find it funny when people here say Canadians have softer accents, with many people going so far as to say they are less loud than Americans.

People I meet seem to have this idea about how Americans sound in general and based on what they say to me about volume along with their attempts at replicating an American accent, I think at least half of them must have gleaned what they think they know from watching American made gangster movies or the sometimes odd variety of imported American television programs that I see on my Brit TV.

It’s as if they think life in the US is one big gun convention where we all talk like the most recent version of whatever New York based crime show is bringing in viewers.

There tend to be a couple of themes when people are showing off their best version of an American accent, most of which sound like a bad caricature of real life. These themes seem to come directly from American television or our big screen movies and it’s been my experience that they generally fit into one of the three areas below.

Westerns ~  I’ve said this before about my husband whose best impersonation of an American accent tends to sound like a mix of between a 1950s black & white western and George W. Bush. (He’s not alone in this one)

Crime Shows ~ I call this the “Say it fast and loud approach” and they almost always include a gun reference with this one when showcasing their take on how Americans speak.

Southern ~  (Being from Georgia, this one is my personal favorite) The southern accent they offer up makes Americans sound as if they’re  extras from The Dukes of Hazzard, The Walton’s, or The Beverly Hillbillies, all of which they’ve seen in reruns over here. If I had a pound for every time someone here said, “Night, Elizabeth, Night, John-Boy … ” Ugh! I just give them a good “you ain’t right” kind of head shake  and go home when this happens. But the best and by that I mean the worst, is the occasional reference to the movie Deliverance when I say I’m from Georgia which usually involves what’s meant as a knowing look and a few words about banjo’s and pigs  … I think you get the picture.

Probably the oddest exchange happened when a 90 year-old woman asked me where I was from and after hearing me say Georgia, spoke Russian to me. That was funny!

Most of the time I don’t mind being teased about being different and I’m not too “bovvered by those who like to believe we all fit in one of the three categories I mentioned above, but I have to say I do get a bit irritated when they pull out the old standby of how they think Americans do British accents.

Mary Poppins was made in 1964, and meant as an entertaining bit of fun, but many people here still use Dick Van Dyke’s version of a Cockney  accent to illustrate their argument that Americans can’t do British accents whenever I suggest that their idea of an American accent is lacking in authenticity.

To counter the Dick Van Dyke legacy, I usually bring up a few American actors who’ve won accolades with their British character roles such as Meryl Streep, Renee Zellweger, and Reese Withersp0on all of whom manage to sound throughly British, but Dick Van Dyke remains the default example of an American attempting a British accent.

My sister, Margaret and my daughter, Miranda would never say I sound Canadian as they go automatically for a Madonna comparison. I think Madonna’s a bit of a stretch for me especially since no one else ever cites my speech as Madonna-esque.

I do understand why Madonna’s “people” have said that she was not was putting on a fake accent but picking up the accent of the area where she lived instead. I’ve had the same thing happen to me where I suddenly start to sound like the people I spend a lot of time with so it’s no wonder mine sounds different now.

Living in Cornwall, you’d think I would sound more Cornish than Canadian by now and I promise I’m really not trying to sound like Madonna, When I choose to fake a British accent, I prefer something a little more exotic like the East London sound you hear on Eastenders. (Click the link,” if ya wanna hav a larf”)

While I tend to look to Catherine Tate’s characters for vocal coaching because they do make me laugh, the next time someone launches into a hearty rendition of a mutilated American accent, I may be forced to contrive a posh English one loaded with all the majesty I can muster to let them know that like another Elizabeth,  “We are not amused!”

17 thoughts on “Where Is Home … When Your Accent Morphs Into Something Neither Here Nor There

  1. What’s all this about mouseholes? I am confused!
    My accent fluctuates between somewhat posh and downright chavvy. I’ve grown up in South East London but my parents both have quite refined accents. When I’m nervous, I revert to speaking like that. On the other hand, when I’m relaxed I’ll sound like I’m from, well, Saaf-East London. Oddly, I tend to get nervous when I’m around people of my own age, so I sound posh, and then they laugh at me. *sigh*
    However, when I’m irritated or excited I sound Welsh, something for which I have no explanation whatsoever. My dad takes great delight in taking the mickey out of anything I say slightly oddly – especially the word ‘massive’, which apparently always sounds Welsh. I also quickly adopt the accent and mannerisms of people around me when I’m talking to them, and I tend to speak differently after I’ve been writing as I’ll have sunk into a characters’ turn of phrase – like “Is it not” which I say much more often than “Isn’t it”. My mum found that most amusing. I didn’t see what was so funny, personally.

    • Sorry about the Mousehole reference … and thanks for letting me know I left it hanging. I went back and added an explanation. Mousehole is a village in Cornwall. It’s near St. Michael’s Mount. I love how your accent changes in different situations and depending on the people you’re around. I once dated an Italian/American guy from Brooklyn, New York and my accent changed so much that I sounded like a New Yorker too. Years later, it still creeps in sometimes. Funny what you say about your character’s voice staying with you when you’ve been writing because that happens to me too.

      • I believe it was my character who was responsible for the Welsh accent. I had this character Bronwyn, you see, and I had a lot of difficulty ‘getting inside her head’, if you understand what I mean. I just couldn’t ‘get’ her. But she was Welsh. And after much writing and rewriting I eventually found her voice and it all just clicked.
        And ever since then, whenever I’ve been particular het up about something, I sound Welsh.

  2. This is a very interesting post. I have had the same experience here is the United States. I have been on a few cruises in my time and found that I have an accent! I find this hilarious because I am a native Phoenician. As I understand it, Phoenicians have little to no accent at all. But while out on cruise ships, with people from all over the country and world, everyone always asks if I am from Indiana. Not completely shocking considering my entire family is from the midwest. Yet even here in Arizona, with a friend who is also a native Phoenician with family from the midwest, still claims I say things differently. His examples are cotton and button. To hear him imitate me saying those words is quite funny to me. I ,of course, do not hear what he is referring to. Also, a few years ago I took a trip to New York City where I found their pronunciation of Houston to be odd. I pronounce Houston with a “u”, as in Houston Texas. In New York, when referring to the street, they pronounce it “Howston”. As funny as this seems to me, you have to reflect on the word pronounce itself. It is “pro-nownce”. Dialect, accent, and pronunciation are one thing. Stereo-types of areas and accent are another beast. I can see your frustration, but can’t help but see the true humor of the human condition. I can only imagine how interesting life must be as a Southern American “Canadian” in Cornwall. 😉 Thanks for sharing. As always, your posts are interesting, inviting and smart.

    • It’s interesting how even in the same country there can be so many dialects. That’s one of the things I like about the UK. You’re right about stereotypes too … they are everywhere. Thanks for sharing your experience and for your kind compliment.

  3. Miscaha Barton – St Trinians
    Don Cheadle – Oceans 13
    Forrest Whitaker – The Crying Game
    Keanu Reeves & Winona Ryder – Dracula
    Marlon Brando (for heavens sake!) – Mutiny on the Bounty
    Tom Cruise – some shockingly bad movie set in Ireland…………made my ears bleed!

    John is so right! Saying ‘his response is never satisfactory’ with reference to ‘R-Kansas ( a perfect example!) & then complaining about OUR pronounciations is a bit rich!

    So what about……..wadder…….what is wadder? Oh – you MEAN water. Same with butter……….not budder!

    Rob has just returned from the US, today & an American colleague there asked him where he was from, to which he replied ‘London’.
    The guy then says ‘huh, if you are an Englishman than how comes you have an Australian accent?’ Rob says ‘I don’t have an Australian accent, I have an English accent’ they guy then ARGUES the toss with him!! Amazingly (unlike SO many Amercians I have met – during the three years I lived there) this guy actually travels too, and I’m not talking state-to-state……..I mean he actually owns his own passport!

    I feel your pain & it is every bit as frustrating, especially when the vast majority of Americans accused us of being Australian, during our years spent living there………it works both ways 🙂


    • Suzanne, Suzanne, Suzanne, you are forcing me to throw one of my favorite British actors right under the bus because you know I can’t let your list just hang there.

      But before I do that, I have to take issue with Miscaha Barton, the first person on your list. She was born in Hammersmith for pete’s sake and with an Irish mother and English father, she really ought to be able fake a decent British accent. I don’t think she should be pushed off on us as an American who fails to do a decent Brit impersonation. 😛 Moving on …

      Alan Rickman (Born in Hammersmith) – Judas Kiss It’s got to be one of the worst southern American accents ever and he goes in and out of it.

      I only brought up a few of ours who do a great job in my post because I am over having Dick Van Dyke held up as ” The Way ” Americans do a British accent. Okay, so you found six more who’ve struggled, I’ll give you that, but you’ve got to give me one on the pronunciation thing. Derby/Darby is only one of many.

      As for the Australian accent, I don’t know what part of the US those folks are from, but I had two people guess Australia for me in the last two weeks too. SInce it was only two people, I didn’t add it to the post, but these were two Brits thinking I was from Down Under. You think you were shocked when it was suggested to you, imagine how I confused I was when I heard it. Me, Australian?

      I actually don’t mind people thinking my accent is Canadian, I think it’s kind of funny. It’s the bizarre variations of American accents that make us sound as if we’re all gun-toting, inbred southern idiots, or members of a New York City crime family that I can live without.

      xx (When are you coming to Cornwall again? I may need some elocution lessons soon. 😉

  4. Elizabeth has gone off to watch some American TV series called ‘The Good Wife’ (or something like that)
    I tried it once, but decided it needs subtitles. (Not sub tidals)

    • Throw to your hearts content sweetie……..compared to some of our talent here on this small island, Alan Rickman is (in my opinion) ok…….ish!

      I can’t let the Miscaha Barton one pass, Irish mother & English father she may have but she has spent her life in the US. I have a daughter who was born just outside San Fransico………..& left there at 16 months old……….does not make her American!

      Would LOVE to be able to report that we are popping by for a rambling walk & a swift pint in your local……….but not sure that is going to happen this year 😦

      Hopefully next year……that sounds such a long way off right now! Glad you are well & blogging, they always make me smile……..& occassionally rant!


  5. ‘When in Rome, do as the Romans do’ isn’t a bad rule of thumb, with pronunciation, as with many other things. I think it is simply ‘good manners’ to try to accept local norms, wherever you are, which have probably developed and been accepted over the centuries. Why should I wish to change things for others? – I am a simple Cornishman!

  6. Well I laughed out loud no less than 3 times on this post: budder/ butter, subtidals and the good night John boy snort. Excellent post, E. I will add to the general rumble (John, please explain to your American cousins what a rumble is, I’m too hot) only to say that I’ve been saying my name is Mariellen, as in, “Good night John-boy, goodnight Mary Ellen.” for years because its the only way the brits seem to be able to deal with it. Perhaps its the proximity of the Channel which makes them think they have to go French with it, so they stumble. Oddly enough the French dive right into Marie Helene, the translated equivalent with no problem and likewise, Americans go straight in on Mary Ellen without the John-boy preamble. But the brits? Nooooo. I offer ’em the John boy help in case it might, (less and less as the mists of time claim the memories of the re-runs) and then metaphorically step back and let it come out as it might. My siblings called me Mrln for years simply because they got lazy and decided to ditch the vowels. There’s no winning with this one and I don’t try, unless someone is being truly ignorant about either Brits or the Americans at which point i wade in for the sport. I should add that I make up my own words too, and confuse the hell out of all of them. Getting me retaliation in first, n ‘aving me own larf. Ha!

    • I’m glad you had a larf, Mariellen because I was trying to have fun with it. It’s funny that you’ve been using “The Walton’s” reference for years while I’ve been saying,” Elizabeth, like the Queen” when introducing myself, especially during sales calls. It worked like a dream when I was in the US to help people remember who I was when I came back, but over here not everyone appreciates the Queen reference.

  7. Add just two vowels, ‘e’ and ‘i”, and Mariellen is the Cornish Wizard, MERLIN. Fascinating ‘aint it, mate! What clever siblings she has..

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