Monday, July 02, 2007

Losing the war on cliché

Before I left Britain for the US, I was given a lot of stick* about how I would come back with a mid-Atlantic drawl (which is perhaps understandable given the strong Cockney inflection I developed during the decade I spent in London, innit).

The linguistic teasing of my friends may be less comprehensible to American ears. While Brits are fascinated with accent - especially as it pertains to and signifies class - and frown upon anyone who changes the way they speak as being somehow phony or pretentious, things are different here. The US wouldn't have developed any kind of unified sense of culture or identity without its multinational population adopting a de facto common language - so in a country where many people have changed their mother tongue to assimilate, or are descended from people who have done so, merely changing accent as one moves from state to state or between social classes must seem like small beer in comparison.

(Of course, this explains why so few people here seem overly concerned about how George "Dubya" Bush ended up with a Texan drawl more suited to a ranch hand than to a man born to a very wealthy family in New Haven, Connecticut and taught in exclusive New England educational establishments - first at the Phillips Academy finishing school in Massachusetts, then at the Ivy League universities Yale and Harvard. Mind you, questioning minds can be forgiven for being more exercised about how on earth he was allowed to become president in the first place.)

While I'm doing my best to preserve my Edinburgh brogue, adopting a certain amount of local vocabulary is unavoidable if I want to be understood: I'm much more likely to find somewhere to pee in a restaurant by asking a waitperson where the "restrooms" are, for example, rather than asking after the toilet, loo or bog. Similarly, in The Amateur Emigrant, Robert Louis Stevenson recounts his own experience of being misunderstood in a hotel on the banks of the Missouri River in 1879, noting that:

"... although two nations use the same words and read the same books, intercourse is not conducted by the dictionary. The business of life is not carried on by words, but in set phrases, each with a special and almost a slang signification."

To give a modern example of what he means, a gas station attendant (a breed now extinct in Britain but still found in some US states) will always ask some close variant of the question "shall I fill her up?" rather than something such as "how much petrol would you like?" We simplify our everyday interactions by sticking to these set phrases, but we have little reason to notice them until they change.

The problem for me is that certain words just sound ridiculous coming out of my mouth. I feel awkward talking about quarters, nickels and dimes (especially as I have trouble remembering which of the latter two is worth five or 10 cents), and downright silly referring to a car's hood or trunk instead of its bonnet or boot - particularly as it's hard to say either without using the verb pop in place of "open" (ie, "can you pop the trunk?"). Ditto sidewalk, sneakers and the dreaded pants (instead of pavement, trainers and trousers, respectively)

But, having thought about it, I've realised the words that cause me the most consternation are also those most likely to crop up in American films and TV shows. Thus for me to ask for a drink "straight up" or "on the rocks" (as opposed to one with or without ice) sounds sillier than asking the barman for "chips" rather than crisps - people in films, after all, rarely bother with bar snacks. Likewise, American vegetable names (zucchini, eggplant, cilantro, etc) don't seem to sound too daft coming out of my mouth - at least on the odd occasions I remember not to use the British versions courgette, aubergine or coriander - but the names of foods that are more likely to pop out of (or indeed into) the mouths of actors, such as candy, fries or soda (sweets, chips and juice), tend to stick in my throat.

Thankfully, for every idiom I falter over, I am discovering many more bons mots to delight me. I have adopted the local custom of referring to spirits such as whisky and vodka collectively as hard liquor (which carries with it more than a whiff of "hardened alcoholism", not to mention the implication that somewhere there is also soft liquor to be found), pluck or courage has been transformed into moxie (a word which even more wonderfully comes from the name of an actual soft drink, which seems to be like a Maine equivalent of Irn Bru) and buildings standing diagonally opposite at a crossroads are now catty corner from one another (which is one of those great phrases that, when you hear it for the first time, you wonder how you ever did without it for so long).

So I guess the way I speak ain't gonna stay exactly the way it yoosta...

* Translations: perhaps in an unconscious attempt to demonstrate how little my accent has changed, I seem to have used quite a few words and phrases peculiar to Britain in this post. For the benefit of American readers, here are explanations for some of the things I couldn't find in my copy of Webster's but, for further reading, I recommend Jeremy Smith's excellent British-American dictionary Bum Bags and Fanny Packs, which my gorgeous girlfriend helpfully bought for me.

  • "given a lot of stick" = been the subject of verbal abuse
  • "innit" = a Cockney contraction of "isn't it", commonly used at the end of every phrase or sentence, innit
  • "class" = one of the few things bigger in the UK than it is in the US
  • "small beer" = a person or thing of little importance
  • "juice" = a word used by the Scottish to denote any soft drink but which has no direct equivalent in England (the English claim, if pushed, to use the phrase "fizzy pop" but in reality never say anything of the kind)
  • "Irn Bru" = a soda made in Scotland, from girders.


Anonymous said...

A couple examples of a Michigan accent, which is a bit like a generic Midwestern accent, but with some subtle differences:

- Milk is pronounced Melk
- Pillow is pronounced Pellow
- Pin is pronounced Pen
- Across is pronounced Acrossd
- Yeah is delivered with as much high-pitched nasal gusto as possible

"Auntie M" said...

Does this mean that when you finally meet "Auntie M," that you are going to think that I speak like a uneducated "ranch hand" and you're going to compare me with our execrable Prez? I may just have to take offense with that one, Darlin'! :*

scribacious said...

Apologies, Auntie M: I only wanted to say that Dubya is trying his best to portray himself as some blue-collar Southerner when he is really an "over-privileged Yankee" (to borrow a phrase). I certainly wouldn't want my criticisms of him to be taken as a slur against the Lone Star State. After all, my fiancee was born there, and she has taught me more than anyone that you don't mess with Texas...