Putting the Kettle On

M. has my oven wired. When I bake, an alarm goes off in her house and she appears, as if by magic, at our door.

“Want a cup of tea?” either Wild Thing or I ask.

“Is the pope Catholic?”

She used to answer, “Is the pope a Nazi?” but that was before Francis. She was raised Catholic, so she gets to say stuff like that. I wasn’t raised Catholic so I don’t, but I will claim the right to quote her.

Irrelevant photo: flowers. As if you couldn't have figured that out.

Irrelevant photo: flowers. As if you couldn’t have figured that out.

I make a pot of tea and set out whatever I just finished baking. If I’m still getting it out of the pan, she asks, “Shall I put the kettle on?” Because you don’t want to stand between M. and a cup of tea, not even if you’re producing baked goods.

She never says, “You want me to I make the tea?” That’s what I’d say. With her, it’s all about the kettle. And while we’re at it, I don’t think I’ve ever said “shall I,” although M. says it as if it were a normal part of speech. And she doesn’t have what people here call a posh accent. She just, you know, uses it like language—ordinary, everyday language.

It’s this kind of thing that makes me doubt I’ll never write British (as opposed to American) dialogue. Oh, I can put together a line or two—enough to keep the blog fed—but if I wanted to write a full scene, never mind a full novel, in it? In no time at all I’d have one of my characters saying, “Want me to make the tea?” instead of, “Shall I put the kettle on?” Only it would be the equivalent on some subject where I haven’t noticed—or maybe even heard—the difference.

I know someone whose mind catalogs these small differences. Talking to her is like reaching into a grab bag: You (or more accurately, she) could pull out almost any sort of accent, along with any region’s phrasebook. It all lives in her head, organized into separate drawers (I know, I know, I’ve jumped metaphors; go ahead and shoot me), each neatly labeled, and none of it escapes to mix itself with her own accent—the accent she uses when she’s being herself. It’s an amazing, fascinating gift.

Me, though? I assimilate languages by steeping myself in them, and once I do I’ve taken on the new flavor. In other words, if I pick up a new accent or phrasebook in English, I’ll lose my clarity on the last one—the one I think is my own. Or more than that—is me. If I weren’t a writer, I wouldn’t have any problem with that. As a writer, though, I’m terrified that I’ll make such a cut-and-paste mess out of my accent that I won’t be able to write in any region’s English.

67 thoughts on “Putting the Kettle On

  1. I love the “shall I put the kettle on” phrasing! I (apparently) am too literal a lot of the time and if someone asks me to put the kettle on, that is exactly what I do… I have been known, on occasion, to completely ignore the next phase of the operation.

    Which is why if someone wants me to make them tea they have generally switched to the question “will you make a cup of tea”
    People have also stopped using the sentence opener “do you want to…” around me, the question “do you want to xxxxxx ?” will often get the answer “no” because i often don’t want to, it doesn’t, however mean that I won’t do it. I have learned that the answer “no, but I will anyway” is slightly better…I have also learned that people don’t want you to take them literally most of the time…

    I would suggest that if you try to write anything in British English, you would be wise not to base it on me in any way!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. That is a really good point – I would never offer to ‘make the tea’, it’s always ‘put the kettle on’ Why is that, I wonder? You have my pondering my own language, which can only be a good thing.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. I wonder if you’re worrying about something that readers probably don’t notice, as long as the mistakes aren’t too egregious. I mean, are most readers out there reading a story/book and saying “Gotcha. The writer screwed up! A Brit would never say that! The whole story is a fraud!” ? I think, if they’re even noticed, these errors are mostly just speed bumps the reader rumbles over and then moves on with the story. Of course, if the story sucks, those errors are just more fuel for the fire.

    I’m reading a novel right now where the narrator is British, and he becomes involved with a married couple: the husband is Australian and the wife is American. If the author has screwed up the nuances between the different versions of English, I haven’t noticed it. The British guy calls his mother “Mum” and the American says “Wow” and that all seems about right to me.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think this is where I confess that, as a reader, I do catalog that kind of mistake. I don’t exactly gloat over them, but I do kind of–okay, I gloat that I didn’t make them. So the worry I was writing about? Call it karma.

      On the other hand, I wouldn’t throw a book across the room because of a mistake like that. I’d keep reading–and hoping for another one.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I agree with Karen. I think most of us aren’t that sensitive to the subtleties of dialect … not in a book that’s otherwise well written, anyway. For me, the big issue is consistency. I want to get to know the character’s voice, and beyond that, so long as they use occasional bits of slang or other language appropriately (for age, gender, socio-economic status, education, etc etc etc, not only culture) that works for me.

        That said, as a technical writer/editor with an English South African background I have occasionally had American clients treat me to the Blank Stare when I use what to me seems completely normal terminology.

        Liked by 1 person

    • It depends on the reader. I would pick up on certain things, and it would bother the hell out of me. The problem is that the more you know about the details, the more you can pick apart.

      I wrote a post about seeing Kinky Boots in Chicago. The setting was in Northampton, and the accents were atrocious except for 2 actors. Most of the audience were enjoying the show because they didn’t know what a Northampton accent was supposed to sound like. Meanwhile I was wishing it were a rock opera because the musical and dance numbers were fantastic, and nobody would have to speak.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Ellen, we are hybrids really. As you may have noticed, I mix both sides of the water pretty liberally. The voice in my head literally speaks both ways. I guess it is who I am, or who I have become over time. There’s simply no point in clinging to my Yankee roots too stubbornly over here – it does make things a little interesting when I’m writing about Kansas, though. I’m forever listening then to make sure my dialogue isn’t too clipped or English sounding. And then there are the colours v. colors and theatre v. theater issues…
    For the record, I would nearly always say “Shall I put the kettle on?” Either that, or “Would anyone fancy a cuppa?”
    Hybrids, my dear.

    Liked by 3 people

  5. “I know someone whose mind catalogs these small differences. Talking to her is like reaching into a grab bag: You (or more accurately, she) could pull out almost any sort of accent, along with any region’s phrasebook. It all lives in her head, organized into separate drawers (I know, I know, I’ve jumped metaphors; go ahead and shoot me), each neatly labeled, and none of it escapes to mix itself with her own accent—the accent she uses when she’s being herself. It’s an amazing, fascinating gift.”

    You are who you are with. We often cultivate our language and behavior to the social context. I mean, who speaks in church like they do in a bar? But some people have the amazing gift of mimicry. I envy them that.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I envy good mimics too, although the bad ones make me want to crawl in a hole and hide there. But even a good one can go wrong from time to time–not on the accent but on the choice of time and place.

      I think you’re right about our language being social. We are, at heart, I think, herd animals. I don’t mean that in any denigrating way. We need a social context, and we fit ourselves to it, even in our opposition and declarations of individualism.


  6. Thought-provoking. I say “put the kettle on” all the time and it never crossed my mind that Americans would find that linguistically peculiar. I have been informed that “having a cuppa” is alien. I still say it all the time regardless.

    My husband is an idiom sponge. It takes him no time at all to absorb someone else’s phrase into his vocabulary. I, on the other hand, seem to be almost preserved in aspic when it comes to language. I’ve softened my Scots dialect and Anglicised it for the sake of being understood by my husband but that’s pretty much it. I can only think of three dialectical things I’ve picked up: since living in the U.S. I’ve started saying “awesome” and when I lived in Essex I picked up “he’s a bit previous” and “she’s got more front than Southend”.

    Liked by 2 people

  7. I would notice inconsistencies in dialect–if I’m familiar with that particular dialect, or it’s blatant. As a reader (and someone who writes), voice is everything, and getting each character and narrator’s voice just so is much of it. :)

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Ah, that’s the benefit of a good first reader, especially one who has those junk drawers with all the language trinkets. You do the best you can, then hand it over and ask them to make sure the Brits are British (or whatever). I’m blessed with friends who can do this for me.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Just then coming across this manual for extraterrestrials, I felt the desperate need to have a word with my travel agent – as well as coming back here to post this shady edit at the end of the instruction:

    «This is socially incorrect. The socially correct way of pouring tea is to put the milk in after the tea. Social correctness has traditionally had nothing whatever to do with reason, logic or physics. In fact, in England it is generally considered socially incorrect to know stuff or think about things. It’s worth bearing this in mind when visiting.»

    Liked by 2 people

  10. I’ve just watched a TV biography about the British actress (and national treasure) Julie Walters, and in it she recalls how she came to play one of her most famous roles, Rita, in the eponymous play (and film) Educating Rita. In the play, Rita is supposed to be from Liverpool, but the playwright, Willy Russell, told Julie that if she wasn’t comfortable doing a Liverpudlian accent, she could instead use the accent of her native Birmingham (“Brummie”). Julie said that she tried out the script in Brummie, but it just didn’t work. She realized that Willy, being a Liverpudlian himself, had unconsciously used forms of English and a pacing of the dialog that would be appropriate for a Liverpudlian, and though there is a rough similarity between the Birmingham and Liverpool accents, the Brummie was just too slow and not edgy enough for it to work. That’s how subtle language can be!

    Oh, and Julie did opt for Liverpudlian in the end. I saw her perform the role in London’s West End, and there were two American visitors in the row in front who hardly understood a word she said – her Liverpudlian was that good!

    Liked by 2 people

    • That really encapsulates the issue. Thanks. The accent and the person aren’t two separate entities.

      I was a singers night at the pub a couple of weeks ago when someone came in with a–ooh, what was it? A Geordie, accent, I think. The person sitting next to me wanted a translator, and I was glad to know I wasn’t the only one.


      • Oh lots of British people can’t understand Geordie. I worked near Newcastle upon Tyne once – got in a taxi and the driver engaged me in a “conversation” that totally baffled me. The weirdest North Eastern accent is the one around Morpeth in Northumberland; the folks there pronounce their R’s in the back of the throat and it really sounds like they’ve got a speech defect.

        Liked by 2 people

    • A perfect one. For me–as an earlier comment (and I can’t find it right now–I’m working on a computer that’s like a toy typewriter) made me realize, it’s not so much about getting it right as about being able to hear the voice in my head.

      Liked by 1 person

  11. I understand just what you mean. I’ve been longing to get back to the sea where I belong, but prices scare me. My ex-husband, bless him, has offered to buy me a house if I will move to his home town in the middle of Illinois…notice, he never dared suggest such a thing while we were still married! He’s got my attention economically speaking, but one of my big fears is that my authentic self will drown under all those cornfields. Here at least I have the Lake and can pretend it is the ocean.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It’s a funny thing how the landscape affects us–although landscape somehow makes it sound like all I’m talking about is a visual thing, and I mean more than that. The land itself. The place and everything it means and does. The way we live in that place, and have to live. I felt the way you describe when I first moved to Minnesota–the flatness of (most of) it. The seealessness. I learned to live with it, but I never felt at home there, and I never stopped missing the ocean.


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