Sunday, February 15, 2009

Do you have difficulty in your native country concerning accents?

Toni:

I can’t say I have difficulty with accents when coming back to the UK, except the difficulties I had in the first place – Glaswegians who speak very quickly, Brummies who mumble etc. The thing that I have to get used to, though, is the huge number of accents in such a relatively small country. You can go ten miles down the A1 from where my family is and the accent is noticeably different. In the States, yes, there are subtle differences, but usually it’s just the Southern twang, perhaps a New York brogue, the Boston flat ‘A’, and the rest. (There are other accents, but you have to be here a while to notice them.)

What has kept me on my toes are all the new words and phrases that have popped up in British vocabulary since I left. It’s not an immediate assumption that if something is “pants” it’s probably not very good. I mean, since when did the name of a garment come to be an adjective that often has nothing to do with clothing? And although “chavs” themselves have been around forever, (we used to just call them “common”), that word is relatively new. In the northeast, for some reason, they are called “charvers” rather than “chavs”. No one is able to tell me why there is a difference.

By far the biggest challenge is keeping up with Cockney Rhyming Slag, which I was never much exposed to anyway, but now it seems everyone’s doing it. Yes, I know that “Apples and Pears” means the stairs, and “Trouble and Strife” means the wife, but a “Billie Piper” being a windscreen wiper? At least I know who she is, courtesy of BBC America. Going out for a couple of Britneys? Apparently Britney Spears is now the rhyming slag for beers. We’ll see how long that one stays in fashion. I’m going to have to do some homework before the summer, I can see!


Mike:

Really, how could I? When I visit the States, I am among people who don’t have an accent.

The regional accents in America, like America itself, are broad; I would have to travel several hundred miles south to Dixie to find an accent that is fundamentally different from my own, and even then it wouldn’t be hard to understand. For accent and regional dialect mayhem, you really can’t beat Britain, where you only have to cross the street to find a people talking in a strange, indecipherable inflection and using totally alien words (like “Twitten”) to mean “Footpath.” In this respect, America is comparatively bland.

I, on the other hand, can occasionally be misunderstood by my friends in the States, not because I have developed an accent (which I haven’t) but because I have adopted British phraseology. If I call something “Dodgy” or identify someone as a “Grass” or refer to an arrest as “being nicked” it not only causes confusion for my listeners but alerts you to the types of people I hang out with when I visit my homeland (and why my wife insists that every other year is often enough).

But I digress.

The short answer, obviously, is “No.” The dearth of truly interesting dialects in America (which is rivaled only by their lack of imagination regarding cheese) makes misunderstandings of the kind you might encounter in a Glasgow pub nearly impossible. And I think America is poorer for it. I would love to go back there and find they have, like Britain, developed some truly distinctive and attractive speech patterns beyond the habit of ending every sentence on a high note, as if they are asking a question. I find that, like, highly annoying? But it doesn’t confuse me? It just gets on my tits?

And that, in turn, confuses my American friends.

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12 comments:

  1. "The thing that I have to get used to, though, is the huge number of accents in such a relatively small country."

    One of the things about Britain I find so fascinating.


    As far as America goes, I agree that you have to go quite far to hear a change in accent and there isn't much difficulty in understanding it. But for some reason ABC News thinks there is because once again they aired a documentary on my home state (WV) and the Appalachian region and included subtitles. Ugh!

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  2. "I would love to go back there and find they have, like Britain, developed some truly distinctive and attractive speech patterns beyond the habit of ending every sentence on a high note, as if they are asking a question. I find that, like, highly annoying? But it doesn’t confuse me? It just gets on my tits?"

    Also known as "uptalk", as described here: http://158.130.17.5/~myl/languagelog/archives/002967.html (and other places). It doesn't mean what a lot of people think it means.

    If you're looking for interesting facets of dialect in the US, try researching vowel shifts. To my knowledge, we have not one, but two of them going on right now, the famous Northern Cities Vowel Shift, and the less famous California Vowel Shift.

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  3. Mike - I forgot to comment on the end of your piece. That really gets on my tits as well and I've got more of 'em (hopefully.) I think it's really peculiar when an American is asked where he or she lives and then ends the answer on a high note, which makes them sound as if they're not sure. I think Australians do this quite a bit as well.

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  4. I must be becoming an native because I can tell the difference between Appalachian Ohio and northern Ohio, never mind different states! I think accents are just as diverse here. You guys must not have been to Kentucky, LOL!
    I do miss the colorful vocabulary that Brits have though - there are words for all kinds of things that are missing here. When I say things at work like "and Bob's your uncle!" they all look at me confused ....

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  5. Conuly: I did read that article. It sounded fairly scientific to me, and, like, that made my brain hurt? Nice to know the boffins are keeping an eye on this one.

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  6. Melissa: we should form a club called "You're Getting on My Tits" (that's the collective 'we', as in worldview we, not just me and you; that might be fun but it wouldn't be as effective) and refuse to talk to anyone who ends their sentances on a high note.

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  7. Pam: Yes, there are actually many dialects in the States and, from where I lived in Albany, you just had to drive to Syracuse to notice a difference. And the Virginia accents are very distinctive. It's just that the dialects in the UK are more distinctive and more closely packed, like everything else over here

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  8. I've just spent last week in Boston, (which I acknowledged as having a noticably different accent), and I had to fight to keep a smile from my face. Don't they know that Havard Yard isn't pronounced that way? (Just kidding.)

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  9. Expatmum: I like the sound of "Cockney Rhyming Slag" or is that......? (Actually I'd better not name Names or I could be sued!) ;)

    BTW Mike - been meaning to ask you this for ages...What does "herfing" mean? It is listed on your profile page....

    I've tried to think about accents and dialects but can't think of any (on the US side anyway). Just love watching "Gone with the Wind" just for the accents alone.

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  10. Hadriana: "Herfing" is defined as two or more people gathering to smoke, trade and talk about cigars. Believe it or not, I was a member of a cigar club in the States and we often had exchange visits with other herfing clubs. It was quite big for a while. What I do isn't true herfing, as I am by myself, but I like the idea of "the sound of one man herfing" - it has a sort of Zen quality.

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  11. I think the South has more of a drawl, hasn't it? I wouldn't be any good at recognizing American accents but there IS a difference sometimes when they speak.
    Mind you American tourists have dropped from coming here for a while now.

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  12. Hadriana - I noticed the "slag" but thought it was such a good Freudian slip, I left it in there. Tee hee.

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