Accents: Brits sorting Americans from Australians

A while back, I mentioned that I’m sometimes asked if I’m Canadian. When your accent stands out, people feel free to ask questions. Sometimes I’m fine with it, sometimes I’m tired of it, and sometimes when no one comments I wonder why they haven’t noticed. I mean, here I am talking in this improbable accent that I have and nobody’s saying a word about it. I might as well be giving an impassioned political speech wearing a rabbit costume.

Which I should probably try some day.

Sometimes, though, the comments get strange.


Irrelevant photo: A view of Gloucester, from the path to the Cheese Rolling.

Wild Thing was in a store, winding up whatever business they’d transacted, and as she got ready to leave the kid working there said, “Say it.”

“Say it?”

“Go on, say it.”

He was almost begging.

“Say what?”


So she said, “G’day?” Complete with the question mark, because how could she leave it out. It stood in for, “You do know that’s Australian, right?” as well as “You do understand that this isn’t an Australian accent, don’t you?”

“Brilliant,” he said. Which the American side of my brain still misunderstands as gee, you’re smart, even though the side that tracks British usage knows it’s just an indication that the speaker’s happy.

He was happy. Ill informed, but happy. Why interfere?


And in case you wondered why I posted two pieces at almost the same second on Tuesday, it’s because I screwed up. I’d scheduled one in case I didn’t finish the Cheese Rolling post on time. When I did finish it, I rescheduled my backup post, or I thought I did, but clearly I was wrong. Apologies. I do know most of you have other things to do in the course of a day other than read me. Although I can’t think why.

British and American accents: Talking trash to an I-Pad

M. and Wild Thing and I were trying to figure out what time it was in Singapore. You know how sometimes you just need to know that kind of thing? So Wild Thing grabbed the I-Pad she bought last week and said, “Hey, Siri.”

“What?” M. asked.

“She has an imaginary friend,” I said.

“I’m talking to Siri,” Wild Thing said.

My point exactly.

In extended and increasingly colorful ways, M. and I said, “Sure you are.”

Irrelevant photo: Our dog, who's real, even if she looks like a windup toy

Irrelevant photo: Our dog, who’s real, even if she looks like a windup toy

“Siri?” Wild Thing repeated to her I-Pad.

She might as well have been talking to the teapot. So while M. and I discussed the nature and uses of imaginary friends (in increasingly colorful and bizarre ways), Wild Thing—in the bits of air time she managed to snatch from us—explained that she’d set Siri up to have a woman’s voice and an American accent but that she’d reverted to being a British male—and a posh one at that.

Trust Wild Thing to have an imaginary friend with a sex change and an ambiguous national identity.

Because of the new accent, Wild Thing said, Siri couldn’t understand her, and that was why she wasn’t answering.

Unless he wasn’t answering. I don’t want to be insensitive, but this sex change business gets confusing when you’re dealing with invisible friends and virtual beings.

But forget about gender—it’s simple compared to accent. To what extent is an invisible British friend able to understand an American accent? I mean, just how parochial is she or he? And if the American accent’s a problem, is he or she (or, well, whatever) able to understand a working class British accent? Or a Welsh one? Or—well, you get the point: How narrow a range of tolerance are we talking about here? What happens if you have, let’s say, an Iranian accent in your English? Do you have to, and for that matter can you, set up your invisible friend to have her (or his, or whatever’s) very own Iranian accent in English?

I haven’t been impressed with the breadth of understanding demonstrated by virtual voices. We were in New Zealand once, and Wild Thing was on the phone with a computerized system.

“Yes,” she said in response to it doesn’t matter what question.

“I’m sorry,” the computer said, “but I didn’t understand that. Did you say ‘address’?”

“No, I said ‘yes.’”

“Did you say ‘guess’?”

And so forth until Wild Thing pinched her nose and, in her best imitation of a kiwi accent, said, “Yiss.”

“Thank you,” the computer said. (And sent a dress to the wrong address. Not that the address mattered. The last time Wild Thing wore a dress, splinters hadn’t been invented yet. And no, we’re not going to discuss how long it’s been since I wore one. It’s enough to say that I may still remember which end faces the feed.)

But back to that New Zealand virtual voice: What happens if you have a lisp and your yiss sounds like yith? You can’t order 80 kilos of chocolate covered Turkish delight by phone, that’s what, because you can’t confirm your order. You can’t call for a cab. You can’t let the bank know that your credit card just wandered off without you. Because the voice is set to the local accent—one local accent, and if it doesn’t happen to be the one you have, you’re skunked.

Or that’s my, admittedly limited, experience.

Apply this to invisible friends and you have to wonder, How much do they have to be mirror images of ourselves in order to understand us, or in order for us to accept them? If the posh, imaginary British man can’t understand (or be accepted by) the un-posh but entirely real American woman who’s talking into her teapot, what chance do the flesh and blood inhabitants of this planet to have to work out our differences?

M. and Wild Thing and I didn’t have time to explore that question, although no doubt the world would be a better place by now if we had. M. was heading home and we were out of time, not to mention cookies.

Wild Thing had addressed her I-Pad multiple times by then and swore Siri had answered her. Me, though? I didn’t hear a thing. And I’m prepared to speak for M. as well: She didn’t either.

A Recommendation

I just read a post on speaking with an accent on Not Another Tall Blog, by Angie K., and I want to recommend it to you.

Yeah, it’s true that we all have an accent of one sort or another, but when you’re the possessor of one that stands out, suddenly you don’t just have an accent, you have An Accent, and that changes things. Her post makes me want to write about the issue, but it’ll take me a while to catch up with that. In the meantime, do take a look at what she’s written.

Folk Music and English Accents

I’ve lived in Cornwall for eight years, and I’ve gotten used to the gap between, on the one hand, Wild Thing’s and my accents and on the other the accents of pretty much everyone else we know. Most of the time, I don’t hear the difference. Even when I listen to the other Americans in the village, I don’t notice their accents. I’m listening to words, not what they’re wrapped in.

Except for the times when I do, of course, when it’s like being hit on the head with a rock. A small, soft rock, but still a rock.

I was at Singers Night at a nearby pub last week when out of nowhere I heard my accent. Whack: small, soft rock to the side of the head.

Irrelevant Photo #2: Bude Canal in the late evening light. Photo by Ida Swearingen

Irrelevant Photo #2: Bude Canal in the late evening light. Photo by Ida Swearingen

Singers night is a wonderful, unpredictable gathering of mostly amateur singers, although one professional shows up regularly, for the sheer love of singing. In the summer, the place gets crowded, with some of the visitors singing and others listening and occasionally taking pictures, which is strange since they’ll go home with pictures of a bunch of people in chairs, with their mouths open. But who am I to judge? This particular night gathered in a strong group singers, and any song with a chorus sounded great—rich voices, good energy, harmonies. I admire the hell out of people who can harmonize spontaneously.

G. had started a song whose chorus repeats the line “Didn’t I dance?” and we must’ve sung the words three times before I heard myself: dahnce. My accent had melted into the accents around me instead of sending that good ol’ American A up my nose to spin itself so flat you could use if for a plate.

Dahnce? I thought. Dahnce? Who the hell am I turning into?

Some people pick up accents when they move, but I’m not one of them. To lose my accent, or even modify it, has always seemed like a much larger loss, as if I’d be losing some part of who I am, or hiding it behind a cardboard cut-out of a personality. I lived in Minnesota for decades without picking up more than a bit of shading on the O. Or so M.’s friend, who’s a dialogue coach, tells me. I’d have sworn I still sounded like the purest of New Yorkers, but she has an ear for accents, so I’ll have to take her word for it.

I’m not claiming my attitude’s better than anyone else’s, and to demonstrate how little sense it makes, I’ll tell you that I’m not bad at picking up accents in other languages. In my head, that’s a matter of respect—for the language; for the people who speak it. In English, though, I count the same act as disrespect.

To make even marginal sense of this, I have to mention the toxic history that imitating other people’s accents has in the U.S. When I was a kid, whites imitating African-American or Mexican accents did it badly and to make fun of them. It was skin-crawlingly awful. These days, I know white kids (okay, they used to be kids; you turn your back for ten minutes and they grow up) who adopt African-American accents because they like them and want to blend in. I’m not sure how I feel about that, but I don’t suppose it matters, because it’s not my feelings that count.

My point here is that there’s a do-not-cross line in my head that keeps me from picking up accents in English, but there I was, singing dahnce.

Every language, and every accent within a language, is a song. I’d love to claim credit for that insight, but I heard someone say it in a radio interview. Unfortunately, I haven’t a clue who it was. A woman, I think, so that narrows it down a bit. Whoever you are, I apologize for not crediting you. But to illustrate your point, whoever you are, when I was still living in the U.S., I heard a recording of kids playing in a schoolyard, and without being able to catch a single word I could tell they were English. The song of their accent rose free of the words. And that’s what swept me along in that chorus: the song.

British singers often sing in American accents. It drives the purists nuts, and they blame it on American rock music. If you listen to enough of it, the accent pours itself on top of the notes and you may not even notice that you’ve picked it up.

Unfortunately, picking up an accent doesn’t guarantee that you’ll get it right. You’re likely to revert to your own accent at any time. Sometimes a word is so firmly stuck in your head that you don’t notice you’re reverting: Michigan comes out Mitchigan; Houston comes out Hooston. The line that tickles me is from a hard-luck, down-and-out folk song with the line “I can’t go back home this a-way.” Only it was an English singer, and it came out as cahn’t. “I cahn’t go back home this a-way.” Hard-luck, down-and-out meets silver-spoon. Cahn’t isn’t limited to a silver-spoon accent here, but put it in an American song and it sure sounds like one. And that’s one of the problems with singing in accents that aren’t your own.

Me? I avoid songs that demand an accent transplant. Most of what I sing is American folk music, and the U.S. is a long way from here, so if I end up singing songs I can’t lay claim to by right of either geography or heritage (and I do; they’re fantastic songs), from this distance they don’t sound as absurd as they would if I were back home.

To the extent that I sing English songs, I keep my accent in place and avoid anything I know is going to sound ridiculous. And if anyone who’s heard me wants to warn me off some particular song because I do sound ridiculous, just throw a nice, soft rock at my head. It would be a kindness.