Monday, February 9, 2009

What do people make of your accent?


Very little, frankly. The reason for this can be summed up in the reaction of the very first person I met on my very first trip abroad. I was in a pub enjoying a pint of Guinness and smoking a cigar when the guy next to me made a comment that required my answering it. At the sound of my voice he seemed perplexed.

"You're a Yank?"

I assured him I was.

"You're awfully quiet for a Yank!"

Not only am I a man of few words, but I am soft spoken and possess an accent devoid of flat vowels, hard consonants and easily identifiable colloquialisms. I am, in short, hard to place.

I once spent three days of a five-day holiday with my companions believing I was Irish. So mostly, my accent goes unnoticed, which is fine by me. People pointing out that I am an American happens so infrequently that it never fails to take me by surprise. I don't believe for a minute that I can pass as a native but, having adopted the local style of speech even if not the accent, hearing me say something like, "I was up on the High Street yesterday and the offie put his prices up again; that's just not on!" in an accent that may or may not be American might prompt the listener to assume I came from Hampshire or Ipswich. People generally have to talk with me for a while before it occurs to them to ask if I'm a Colonial.

And never, not once, has anyone said, "I love your accent! Say something for me!" which happens to my wife on a routine basis when we visit the States.

I have also never had anyone try to imitate an American accent on my account, though there is a woman at work who "does" an American accent (it's sort of her party piece) and it never fails to crack me up. I'm sorry, but there is something inherently funny about a Brit speaking in an American accent.

On the other hand, I still love the accent here and enjoy traveling around the country and listening to regional variations. I never get tired of it; it must be something inherently American.


As I mentioned in the first post, strangers hearing me will often edge closer (just to be sure) and then engage me in conversation, usually to tell me not only that they love my accent/the UK, but where they have been or where their British ancestors came from.

I like to think that my friends don’t notice my accent, but the reality is that they obviously do because they imitate me from time to time, and I am always identified as “the British woman” to others. At school, I am quite often asked to speak in public when there are other parents who could just as easily do it. It might be that that kind of thing doesn’t scare me (unless it’s to the High schoolers), but the other parents often say it sounds “better” with my accent. I also have to slow down when I'm on the phone to Americans, or risk having to repeat every other sentence.

The only thing that really bugs me is complete strangers imitating me. It happens quite a lot in shops/ stores. Half way through a transaction, the sales assistant (usually young and male for some reason) will twig that I’m British, and switch to a weird combination of the Queen Mother and a Monty Python member. I never quite know how to react. Yes, they’re being funny, but would they imitate me if I had a Bangladeshi or Brazilian accent? I think not. I seem to be fair game but maybe I should chill a little. After all, they’re the ones who look ridiculous.

Got something you want us to address? E-mail your suggestion to us or just pop it into the comment box.


  1. When I was young the city I live in was not ready for the Lancashire accent that I obviously had (after moving from the the North to the South) I was mercilessly taunted about it and within a year I had been forced to drop it, which my children thought was a great pity.
    I now speak with a fairly neutral accent that I think would be hard to place.
    People have a much more healthy approach to accents now, I think and are not penalized for having one, like they were in the past!

  2. What I meant to add was:- Do either of you have difficulty in your native countries concerning accents?
    Understanding different dialects. EG north south America...... north south England when you go back home?

  3. Mike-I was able to go unnoticed for the most part as well. Even though I am from WV, I never developed a southern draw and my accent is pretty neutral. Because I lived with a Scot and most of my friends were English, I used a lot of the same words they did for greetings and general small talk, the type you would have when you are out and about in the shops. I'm a pretty quiet (and private) person as well, so I was perfectly happy to keep to myself.

    Toni- You must walk around at times feeling like a celebrity with people skulking around you hiding behind shop racks, hanging on your every word. The imitating part though- I have to admit I've done that before, mostly to an Australian friend. I won't do it again though. I can see how it would get very irritating.

  4. Maggie that's a great question. We'll have to consider that for our first "public question".

    Melissa - hardly, but I was once recognised in the corner shop after I'd done a telly interview. However I'm in the corner shop all the time, so they were probably a bit confused. I seem to look like a lot of people.

  5. Maggie, great question! I think that may be our first reader submitted topic.

    Melissa: you, quiet? You struck me as a rowdy southern gal ;)


  6. I have the typical reaction whereby people are very complimentary, though I do sometimes get asked if I'm Australian.
    One guy at work tells me to "speak English" quite a bit. He also keeps bringing up the Revolutionary War though so that tells you what kind of muppet he is.

  7. I was quite surprised when people here kept talking about the War Against the British. I was always taught that it was the American War of Independence to be honest.

  8. I'm an American who has been living in Scotland on and off for about four years, and like Mike I have a very soft, hard-to-place accent. People are shocked when they find out I'm from New York - they tend to think I'm Irish.

  9. RE: that time in the 18th century when we kicked some British butt! I always called it, and still do, the Revolutionary War. The Brits, however, don't place as much emphasis on it as we do. To them, it was just a footnote in history; to us, it is our history.


  10. This is kind of hilarious. I must admit, as an American, I do love pretty much any and all accents....though that's not just other countries. I know people here that have different accents I love.


  11. Lauren: Thanks! And thanks for stopping by. I read that review of The Suicide Shop - it sounds interesting. I'll have to keep an eye out for it.

  12. I have a very "BBC English" accent and often get mistaken for Australian in the US. I can never understand it!

  13. As an American with British heritage I'm told I "look English" whatever that means.

    In the UK, if I keep my mouth shut I blend in totally. I actually try not to talk much as I like that feeling, being rather shy.

    In London, when I speak no one takes any notice of my accent--too common to be noticed in America's fave British city.

    But in the country, I often get "American?" when I first speak. Or a tiny look of shock in someone's eyes as they register a furriner in their midst!

    My US accent is East Coast Standard English, with maybe a smidge of Southern softness in the vowels and some dropped "G" endings.

    While it's very much frowned upon in America to assume a British accent after visiting the Mother Country (too posh, putting on airs, etc), I must say it's easy to use British pronunciations while in country.

    And almost seems more polite to pronounce a word as the person you're talking to does. Not in a copying way, but naturally.

    Words that spring to mind are the British pronunciation of Castle, Half, Gastly, Partner. It's that old You Say Tomayto, I Say Tomahto thing.

  14. Having known you for years, Mike, I have to say you're a lot more interesting to chat with now that you've adopted a bit of Brit-speak. Not that you weren't entertaining before, just in a different way.

  15. The reactions I get are just like Toni's but amplified I suspect, due to where I am in a rural area. I don't get strangers imitating me, they're too polite here, but friends do sometimes.

  16. And yesterday I met some friends for lunch and the one thing I wanted on the menu was the Tomato Basil soup. You can imagine the hilarity there....


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