Simon Wood

HUMP DAY: Accented

For my birthday, I saw a stage production of SLEUTH.  A few minutes into it, someone complained, “I don’t understand what they’re saying.”  Well, that person was in for a long night.
As George Bernard Shaw said, ‘England and America are two countries divided by a common language,’ and despite the fact we watch each other’s TV shows on a regular basis, that truism is as true today as it was then. And it’s something I learned the hard way as a foreigner on these shores.

American-English and English-English are very different. It’s more than the US’s predilection to drop the letter U from words like colour and to ration double L’s. Slang is different. Sentence structure is different. Pronunciation is different for the same words. The English accent, despite everything, is still relatively unfamiliar to the American ear.  Watch this Geico ad.  Julie and I have had this exact argument—almost word for word:  

All these things made life difficult for me as an immigrant in the US..  I would ask for something in a store, and watch the person nod, but see they didn’t have a clue what I was saying.  I remember being asked to write down what I wanted in a Starbucks after saying “Coffee, coffee, coffee” in a number of different ways. After handing the note over, the barista said, “Oh, you mean, coffee.” It was quite a humiliating experience. For about six months, I used hand gestures instead of words to get what I wanted, which seemed to get me further with fewer incidents.

This was a pretty sorry state of affairs. It wasn’t like English was my second language, but it was proving that American was. In a state of frustration, I complained to my wife. “What is wrong with everybody? I’m not speaking a different language.”

“Well, you kind of are,” she said tactfully. “You do have an accent.”

“A what? An accent? I don’t have a bloody accent. You people have the accent.”

“Yes, I know, but you have to appreciate the differences.”

“What differences?”

“You are a low talker. All English people are. You speak on a low and level tone. We don’t.”

You mean Americans are loud, I thought unkindly, but I accepted the point. I looked at the way I spoke and listened to Americans in conversation. I changed my lexicon so at least the words I used were the same ones everyone else used. I also changed the way I spoke. I didn’t affect an American accent, but I did speak up a tad and develop a Hugh Granty kind of an accent which was a little more formal than the way I spoke, because Americans seemed to understand him.  One thing I had to let go of was the slang and I did say all my letters—no dropped H’s, etc.  Terrance Stamp from THE LIMEY illustrates the point here:

Sixteen years later, I speak fluent American, although I still speak it with an accent. My accent is now a little mellower on the American ear. I can laugh (most of the time) about my past problems, and I can even see where you lovely Americans are coming from and where my people go wrong when they visit the US. A little while ago I was having lunch with another ex-pat friend of mine, and we saw an English family having a hard time getting their order over to the waitress. My friend and I smiled.

“Fresh off the boat,” I remarked.

My friend nodded, and we offered our assistance.

This isn’t the first time I’ve offered my translation services to English newbies. It’s almost like the scene from AIRPLANE where the old woman proclaims that she speaks Jive.

So now I’m very comfortable when speaking around Americans. Now I just wish they wouldn’t confuse me with an Australian nine times out of ten.


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