In his short story, the Canterville Ghost, written in 1887, Oscar Wilde stated:
“We have really everything in common with America nowadays, except of course, language.”
George Bernard Shaw was also credited with creating my title for today, although there’s definitely some controversy as to where and when he actually said this. Some sources mention Winston Churchill using this phrase as well.
Nevertheless. Both statements could not be more true. And during my twenty-six years of trekking back and forth through the Rabbit Hole, I feel I have some good experience with this.
In thinking about writing about differences between America and Britain, I’ve thought of discussing the difference in (primarily) accent, but also language itself, several times.
Possibly God was (understandably 😆) impatient for my next entry because a couple of weeks ago I was asked to be an English accent “coach” for a local theater group. Which I found entertaining, so here I am. Let’s have a chat about accents, we’ll talk about language later…
The theater group in question is http://www.kenbradbury.org/
Please take a few minutes to check them out.
They perform many of the exceptional works of Ken Bradbury, a local but nationally known playwright. He ran performing arts summer camps in our area, (that both our Frankie and Cerys have attended). He also produced much of the material for school speech contests in the area, where he often appeared as a judge as well. He was incredibly supportive of his local community, writing and producing plays for local theater organizations. As if he wasn’t busy enough, he also wrote regularly for the newspaper as well as teaching at Triopia High School for 30 years and as an adjunct professor at the local community college.
People like Ken give one pause for thought, whenever one claims to be “busy”.
Unfortunately, Mr. Bradbury passed away at the end of 2018, and has been greatly missed in both the world of theater and in the local community as well.
The Foundation works hard to continue his legacy of entertainment and if you live locally and would like to check out some of these events, they are available at the link below:
Mr. Bradbury enjoyed challenging his actors, and so the play Dinner is Served, is set in, you guessed it, jolly old England. Hence, the reason why I was kindly asked to help the actors with their accents. I’m quite sure that they will do perfectly well on their own, and I’m hoping I can just read lines and they can copy as (and if) they see fit.
I just hope no one asks me to do a Cockney accent. I’m ok at rhyming, but I’m no Eliza Doolittle.
It has a nice irony that this play is being performed smack dab in the middle of the General American accent region. Here lives the accent that most non-local actors strive to obtain during tutoring.
Personally I feel there’s a cute little southern twang happening here, but what do I know? Actors in films are supposed to sound like they hale from here, as opposed to New York or Louisiana etc.
When I first met Scott a funny thing happened. The day I first spoke to him, I happened to be walking down his corridor. They always put American exchange students in the same block of rooms each year and when I saw his door open, I rolled my eyes and thought “American…”
This is because an Englishman’s dorm room is his castle and heaven forbid you’d let down the drawbridge and open one’s door.
In full English sarcasm mode, I stuck my little head round the door and quipped:
“Oh, you wouldn’t happen to be American, would you?”
Understandably he didn’t realize I was being sarcastic but none of that mattered in the slightest.
There were angel choirs, trumpets and blinding flashes of light and that was it.
Anyway, in the midst of all the excitement of discovering this fabulous piece of mankind, I noticed his accent and thought to myself, “my goodness, he’s not only heavenly, he also sounds like Harry Connick Jr.!!!!”
Which in retrospect we both find quite amusing, especially since Scott’s accent epitomizes every actor’s dream of the “General American” accent.
Of course, there were a good number of people around us speaking “General Welsh” accent at the time, complete with an entirely different P-Celtic language, so even if he was Minnesotan I would have thought he was Rhett Butler.
My own accent has always been a little odd, having lived formative sections of my life on various continents. At least three times a week, even now, someone scrunches up their nose in a confused fashion, and says generally the same thing:
“You’re not from around here, are you?”
Nope. I’m not.
I never really paid much attention to my accent until I moved back to England from Australia when I was 15. Suddenly every teenage boy in my school thought they were amazingly comedic and said “G’day mate” to me constantly. Which wasn’t funny at all and confirmed my belief that boys were generally just stupid.
But moving forward to the point in time that I realized that one boy in particular was both brilliant and full of excellent wit, I was transported to the Colonies. Where I quite naively thought, as a world traveler of sorts, I’d have no issues with language.
Being a new immigrant, there were millions of interviews to do, phone calls to make, and papers to fill out. The last one was no problem. I occasionally had to drop the letter “u” in words like “favourite” but that word didn’t tend to appear much on government forms anyway…
And the interviews weren’t bad. If they couldn’t comprehend me, I could resort to frantic hand motions or just completely silly smiles if it went really, really bad.
But the phone calls. Oh dear.
Phone calls were my nemesis. I’d get on the phone and have to spell various things and nobody ever comprehended. I remember telling Scott I just couldn’t call the phone company at our newlywed apartment because “nobody understands me!!!”
The biggest of several American-English accent differences is the letter R. It is pronounced completely differently in England compared to America. There’s even a fancy word for the difference. It’s called Rhotism.
In most British English accents, the letter R is pronounced at the start of a syllable, but is not pronounced at the end of a syllable.
An accent where the R is pronounced in all positions is called a rhotic accent.
And boy, do you Americans pronounce the R.
Sorry, but you all sound slightly pirate-y.
Ahoy, me matey.
It’s taken me years, but I’ve gone from using “aaah” to pronounce the letter R, and the words using it, as the English do, to the Blackbeard form.
A conversation or two along the following lines caused this eventual change, merely for annoyingly practical purposes.
“Mam, how do you spell Russell, please?”
“Aah, yoo, ess, ess, eee, ell, ell”
“Ok, so I-U-S-S-E-L-L?”
“(Why would you even think that would be a right spelling?) NO. Aaaarrghhh-U-S-S……”
And then there’s the long journey with the word “water”. This one’s all about the T-voicing, where Americans pronounce the T in a word as more of a D.
I know. Asking for water should be one of life’s most simple things, really.
“Mam, what would you like to drink?”
Confusion and silence all round the table.
Please, please, someone please say something and help me. I just don’t know how to say it the way you do…
“Sorry…. um….Wadder? If you please…”
After a while, Scott just ordered for me, to avoid my constant mortification, and then later, I ordered for my own parents who also needed “Wadder” and therefore ended up with lots of practice.
And then the short “a” and the short “o”.
Sorry, I’m keeping these little gems of the English accent. Except in a restaurant, where to be understood about my salad dressing choice I have to say “Rannnch” instead of “Raahnch”. The kids always tell me I over-accentuate this but Scott told me once it sounded like I was asking for “Raunch” on my salad so now I’m very, very careful, because a raunchy salad sounds unappetizing, as well as embarrassing.
The kids, when they were little, used to say “baaath” and “daaaance” and “chaance” and all sorts of lovely long-A words…but that’s all gone now.
And finally, the other notable difference is the “o”. It’s a lovely little sound. American “o’s” often sound like hard “a’s”. What is it with these hard A’s? A “proper” O is a short little sound, the sort of sound you make when you touch something hot.
When Scott and I were first engaged in England, he called me at work one afternoon. My colleague handed the phone over and with a slightly confused expression said:
“It’s your fiancée.
Happy Sunday, friends. Hope your Monday and Choosday are great! I’ll talk about that next time!!!