Two words spoken in an American accent reliably crack up the British: water and butter. It has to do with the difference between English R and the American R, which as far as I can figure out is this: Americans have one and the English have a sort noticeable absence—something you might write as an H, or an apostrophe. WAWtah, as opposed to WAWterrrr.
I’ve spelled that first syllable the same way but no way does it sound the same. No matter how much I mess around with the spelling, though, I can’t come up with the difference. Put it this way: The English first syllable is well behaved and sits in its chair with a perfectly straight back. The American one slouches and puts its feet on the coffee table.
That may not help. I do understand that.
Okay, I’m writing about English pronunciation as if the English had one single accent. They don’t, but let’s not get into that here. I’m oversimplifying, the same way I’m oversimplifying the American accent, because if I don’t I’ll never write this. I’ll lose myself in complications and sub-points and convolutions so badly that I’ll shut down the computer, go back to bed, and pull the covers over my head. Pretty soon I’ll be joined by two cats and we’ll spend the day there.
They’ll think it’s a day well spent.
Any number of British friends will, in the middle of a conversation involving food or drink, lose all restraint and repeat after us, “BUTTerrrr,” or “WAWterrrr.” They can’t help themselves. It just breaks loose. Even if it was going to fly around the room and break the dishes, they couldn’t keep it in. Sometimes they don’t even wait for us to say it first. I’d love to criticize, but if Wild Thing and I are in the car when the weather comes on and the winds are moderate, we’ll repeat “MAWderit” and laugh as if it was the first time we’d done it. Some jokes just don’t get old.
We’re lucky, though. We have the accent that people think is cool because they’ve grown up watching Hollywood movies. Well, we sort of have it. We have versions of it, with regional flavorings that, from this distance, most people don’t hear. So we don’t get the disapproval that goes with having accents people look down on, or are afraid of. A wave of let’s-all-worry-about-immigrantion is breaking over the country just now, and our accents mark us all. Wild Thing’s and mine get us sorted in the Immigrants We Accept pile. It’s uncomfortable sometimes, but not as uncomfortable as being in the Immigrants We Don’t Accept pile. Still, it’s odd when people react to your accent, even favorably. It’s a bit like having people react to your nose. You’ve been walking around with the thing all your life. You’ve forgotten it’s there and are thinking about something else, but people want to talk to you about it. Over and over.
I’m in the supermarket and the woman at the checkout says, “I love your accent.”
What am I supposed to say? It’s my accent. I’m not responsible for it. When I was a kid, if I’d known I could choose I would have chosen a different variation on the New York accent. Now it’s too late. The glue that holds it in place set long ago.
So I say thanks, just as if she’d said she liked my sweater. Which she’d have called a jumper.