If you follow me on Instagram, you may have seen me talking about practicing my “British accent.” (If you don’t follow me, don’t worry, you can find me here.) It started because I’d been thinking about how my speech habits have changed since moving to England.
Disclaimer: I’m obviously not some kind of linguistics expert. This post is just my personal observations on the English language, so forgive me if I get anything wrong.
Anyway, I’m getting a little better at the accent, but I can assure you I’m still far off. Sometimes I’ll make Joe keep saying a word, trying to imitate it, and it just won’t happen. My best impersonation is probably the sentence “Fancy a cuppa tea?” but it’s not quite there yet. Many Americans think they’re good at the accent but sadly we’re just not.
50 Shades of the British Accent
Joe’s biggest critique of my attempts is that I can’t stick to one consistent accent. Which is probably because almost everyone I know talks slightly differently. It’s crazy to me how many accents and dialects exist in our language. I assume this is the case for many other languages as well.
In America we have a few different accents, but this tiny island over here has so many more. What most Americans think of as the British accent is called received pronunciation. There’s also Cockney, which I don’t think is spoken as often anymore but still exists. If you talked to a person from London, Liverpool, and Birmingham, they would each have a different accent, even though the cities are less than 300 miles apart. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
I’ve gotten much better at understanding many variations of the English accent – sometimes I “translate” for Joe in America – but some accents are still quite hard. I still have to concentrate more when I’m talking to someone from Scotland or Ireland. I also have a friend from Perth, Australia and after we’ve had a few drinks I legitimately have no idea what he’s saying.
So back to the way I speak.
Most of my life I’ve spoken the same way, with some occasional changes as I got older. I stopped using the expression “fixing to” (meaning “about to,” like “I’m fixing to go to the store”) when I realized it was a regional expression that didn’t exactly make sense. While I don’t know if I ever said “y’all” frequently, I certainly don’t think I’ve used it in the last 5 years. At one point I realized that I was pronouncing “your” like “yer” and tried to make an effort to change that. No offense to anyone who does speak this way – I just became self-conscious about it and wanted to change it.
I figured other than these conscious efforts, my way of speaking probably wouldn’t change after 23 years. But after a year in England, my habits have changed and it gets a bit disorienting at times.
Do you realise that blue is my favourite colour?
It started with spellings. The person I’ve texted most for several years spells things the UK way, so I got used to it. When I moved, I figured I needed to adjust to fit in at work. So I set my phone to UK English, started using 24 hour time, and started writing the date in day/month/year format. I still get confused looking at dates, but I’m mostly used to UK spellings (except for the word manoeuvre which is just ridiculous). I’m sure I annoy everyone back home when I type “favourite” or “realise.”
But with my blog I thought it would look pretentious if I spelled everything like a Brit. So now my computer is on US English, my phone is still on UK, and I seem to go back and forth between realize and realise on a constant basis.
You say tomato, I say tomato…
Changes started creeping into the way I talk as well. The biggest difference is the cadence of my voice. Americans talk in a fairly flat (although loud) cadence, while English people slide the tone up more, especially asking questions. Then there’s Scottish people.
Without realizing (I definitely just typed that with an s), I started raising my pitch more at the end of questions, and my phrasing changed. I skyped my family over Christmas and my cousin told me my accent was different. I thought he was joking, but my brother said I do actually sound different. Since then I’ve had several people comment on how my inflection sounds different.
My pronunciation hasn’t changed that much, but I have found myself thinking “toe-mah-toe” or that I’ll grab some pesto “pas-ta.” Sometimes I hesitate before I say a word because I can’t remember how I pronounce it. I started saying literally as “litraly” as a joke but now I just pronounce it that way. I never know if I should call Joe a “twaat” or a “twaht.” It’s hard really.
Mate, what are you on about?
There are so many little differences in words in phrases. They don’t call it a “restroom” here; they’ll say “Where’s the toilet?” This sounded crude at first, but I wanted to fit in. Now I have to remind myself when I go back to America that I shouldn’t go around saying I’m “going to use the toilet.” I try to avoid telling people here that I like their “pants” (underwear over here). The Brits refer to college as “uni” while college is what you go to before university. The word I use generally depends on who I’m talking to, cause I don’t want more eye rolls for saying “uni” to an American. I grew up saying “tennis shoes” and here they call them “trainers” (which I prefer) but half the time I land on calling them “sneakers” which makes absolutely no sense at all.
I asked my family what words I’ve started saying and they said:
- “Loads” instead of “lots” (like I drank loads of coffee yesterday).
- I’ll “sort” something out or “get it sorted.”
- Or that something wasn’t “especially” great.
The worst is that twice now I’ve said “I reckon” to Joe. In the UK this is just a normal word, in America it’s a stereotypical hick word. I don’t know who I am anymore.
There’s lots of other weird things I’ve started saying because Joe has a lot of weird expressions. They have nothing to do with England.
The moral of the story (is there one?)
I wish I had some really profound lesson to learn from this but really I just wanted to tell everyone because it can be really confusing but also really funny. I can’t imagine how confusing it is for people who are actually multi-lingual; you guys are the real heroes.
I guess if there’s any lesson, it’s just a reminder that our language can vary so much from place to place, and there isn’t one that’s the “right” way. They’re all just unique. Sure there are some accents that I don’t especially love (there I go again with especially) but that doesn’t mean mine is superior in any way. It’s just something I learned because of where I grew up. It’s important to remember the complexity and diversity of the world around us because it helps us respect each other more.
A little honesty moment: I used to be guilty of getting annoyed at people in America who couldn’t speak English very well. Subconsciously I felt like people were less intelligent when they couldn’t communicate with me properly. Fortunately I read a story once that put me in my place. They speak more languages than I do, so how could they possibly less intelligent??
When I visited other countries, I felt pretty stupid about my previous attitude. I’ve realized how hard it is to learn new languages, especially making sounds that you’ve never made before. I mean, I’m trying to learn French and it sounds even worse than my terrible English accent.
So have a little patience and respect for those people around you who have made the brave decision to move to a new country and learn a new language, cause it ain’t easy.
Okay I’m done preaching and storytelling (for now).
Comment below and tell me about your experiences with learning a new language or navigating accents and dialects! Do you have anything that confuses you?
P.S. If you’re interested in accents, I listened to this interesting podcast the other day:
There’s a bunch of videos on YouTube that illustrate different accents if you’re interested. I haven’t linked them because they’re mostly people putting on other accents, which doesn’t really feel authentic enough.
If you enjoyed this, you might also like my post on what I miss most about America.