As an American living in the UK, I always felt self-conscious when someone commented on my accent. I’m not bashful, yet when questioned, I would just look down at my shoes and squirm a bit. I’m squirming in my chair as I type, just reliving the memory.
The funny thing is that the comments were always positive. A mundane question like ‘Can I get a latte?’ would frequently elicit an enthusiastic ‘I LOVE your accent!’ The embarrassment stems less from the attention and more from the accent itself. Mine is quite flat and Canadian with a dash of Scandinavian 'you betcha.' Nothing as exotic as Texan, New Yorker or Bostonian. Now, those are accents to get excited about.
The accent thing definitely caused an uncomfortable spotlight from time to time. At a party, Eleanor, the 13-year-old daughter of a colleague cornered Perry and me. “Oh my God, a real life Ameri-can”, she circled as she surveyed me. She put a slight pause between ‘Ameri’ and ‘Can’ with emphasis on the CAN. She was not going to let this opportunity pass her by and crossed her arms as she rapid fired commands at me. She asked the questions like I was an imposter and she was going to trip me up somehow.
13YO: ‘So, say something.’
13YO: ‘Say your name.’
13YO: ‘Say my name’
13YO: ‘Say Oh My God.’
Paula: ‘Oh. My. God. Becky.’
13YO: ‘Who’s Becky? Never mind, say Justin Bieber.’
Perry: ‘He’s Canadian.’
Why did I do this? Aside from the fact that she is a nice kid and it was kind of funny, it’s really to compensate for American shortcomings- perceived or real. One never knows what negative American experience this person has encountered. Sometimes, you just play the diplomat and smile.
Now, the British accent. She is a thing of beauty. And there are so many! It’s hard to believe a country the size of Minnesota could have so many that sound so different.
Hard to admit, but in the beginning, I would have been hard pressed to distinguish between an Irish, Scottish and English accent. Today, I’m pretty good at identifying regional dialects. Northern, Southern, London, Essex, Liverpool. A Birmingham accent is the US equivalent to a Southern accent. I know them well.
How? Well, the more accents you hear, the more likely you are to match them to someone else later. It’s kind of like a game of audio ‘Memory’.
The first time I identified someone by their accent (a Geordie, or someone from Newcastle, to be precise) it was because he sounded like a colleague from Sunderland. Now, I didn't tell him that because he would be really pissed off to hear that. Bad rivalry.
As fun as it is to try and distinguish accents, it’s actually hard work trying to decipher what people are saying. It did get easier over time, but I still had to pay close attention because many Brits do not enunciate very well. Strange, as this is the country of My Fair Lady. You know, Eliza Doolittle, Henry Higgins and ‘The rain in Spain falls mainly in the plain’? Anyway, I have made some interesting errors in understanding what someone is saying to me- all because of accents.
Once, at a party, I was introduced to a couple and was intrigued to hear the man referred to as ‘Captain Bob’. When I shook his hand, I asked if he was in the military. He gave me a puzzled look. I said ‘It’s Captain Bob, right?’ The hostess laughed and repeated herself. Cath and Bob.
It happened more often than I care to admit. In fact, it happened all the time with certain friends. Most of the time, I asked them to repeat. I blamed it on bad ears. But sometimes, especially in noisy environments, like restaurants, I had taken to smiling and nodding like a stereotypical Japanese tourist.
I’m pretty sure they were not fooled, but they were diplomatic about it anyway.