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!”