Nathanael Green's Blog

An advertising copywriter, novelist, and freelance writer's brain goo.

Why I Can’t Speak English in England.

with 14 comments

In this, the first of two posts discussing accents, I want to talk about an issue for which I have no answers. It’s a question that I’ve discussed with friends over many a beer and is still unresolved, so I’d like to hear what other people think about it.

Let me start with a scenario: Pretend for a moment that you’re going about a regular day. And in this regular day, you meet a new coworker who seems like a nice, normal lady. Soon you find out that she recently moved to the US from Australia … but she doesn’t have an Australian accent.

Is that weird? Did she lose her accent or put on an American one? Or would someone with the same native tongue subdue their natural accent and put on a different one to try to fit in?

Now what if that lady were from Moscow? English would have been a foreign language to her. You’d probably compliment her on how well she speaks, right?

But what if it is the same language, just a different dialect and accent? Is the Australian speaking like a New Yorker creepy mimicry, or an impressive and even flattering linguistic feat?

As an American born and raised on the east coast, with parents who are native-born, I speak with a pretty neutral, Mid-Atlantic American accent. But I seem to have a gift for picking up other accents. It’s something I noticed when I was pretty young when I started mimicking English accents I heard in movies. It’s just a gift I’ve been given, though in my next life, I think I’ll be rich instead.

The funny thing is that when I go somewhere for more than a long weekend, I unknowingly start to pick up the local dialect. A number of years ago, I spent some time in England and by the end of my trip, I had to consciously reapply my American accent. Just being immersed in the locals’ pronunciation, choice of words, and cadences made my mouth start to speak like I’d grown up there.

And any time I’d catch myself dropping the r’s from the ends of words, I felt pretty sheepish, not to mention the funny looks I’d get from my wife. I felt like I was putting on airs, pretending to be something I wasn’t. So even though I wasn’t trying to adopt a new dialect on purpose, it kept creeping in and I had to put on an American accent to combat it.

But on the other hand, so what? Wouldn’t it be a nod of respect to people to speak their tongue in their way? I spent some time in Germany and was quite proud of the shocked looks I got as people learned I wasn’t a local: “But your German accent is so good.”

So what do you think? Would you feel comfortable speaking with an English accent in England as a foreigner? How would you feel about an Englishman putting on your accent? Is it alright to adopt another dialect quickly, or is there some probationary period where you have to live there for more than six months before you’ve earned your new accent?

Written by Nathanael Green

March 26, 2009 at 7:30 am

Posted in Linguistics

Tagged with , , ,

14 Responses

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  1. Nater,

    I think in your case it’s not so much a conscious choice on your part, which makes it all fine and dandy. But then there’s people who, as you say, put on airs. I don’t know why that bothers a lot of people, but it does, and I guess it’s because nobody likes a phony, for lack of a better word.

    Something pretty strange happened to me at PetSmart of all places, regarding this issue. I had brought Bear in for a bath and grooming. The tech who took my information put on a fake British accent for our entire conversation. I knew it was fake for three reasons: 1) she wasn’t quite affecting the accent she wanted and 2) I’d heard her before that conversation, speaking in a Philadelphia-area accent and 3) the other techs in the room pleaded with her to stop.

    God bless her, though, because she stayed in character, as bad as the accent was the whole time. I can’t say I was pissed, but I was left baffled by the encounter. I even told her, as I was leaving, that the accent needed a little work.

    Brian O'Rourke

    March 26, 2009 at 9:57 am

    • Brian,

      I can see how that would certainly be a strange thing – for someone you know to be local to then put on a different one just for everyday use.

      But what if you had interacted with her before and had known that she was British? And then this last time, she seemed to have a Jersey accent? Still weird, sure. But offensive?

      So your suggestion is that it’s a matter of volition? Consciously doing it might make it seem condescending, where if it happens naturally it’s ok? I’d also imagine that the impression on the listeners would have a lot to do with the degree your speech is modified. Over-enunciating in your acquired accent might come across more abrasively than subtle changes.

      As a side note – a friend of mine from Pennsylvania moved to Louisiana for a few years, and when I talked to him, I noticed him starting to pick up a Southern accent (pin and pen rhymed). But he had no idea he was doing it – it was just a matter of immersion and his speech patterns changed naturally.

      Nathanael Green

      March 26, 2009 at 6:26 pm

  2. Nate
    During my two years traveling while working on cruise ships I encountered many different accents, languages, and dialects. I have to say that even though I spent much time in certain areas at one time. ie two months in the mediteranian or 7 weeks in British Columbia, I never really picked up or started using any accents or whatever. I think alot of people do not want us (tourists) to adapt to them because they find it insulting almost… this I have been told. I do tend now working and owning a pizza shop in Kennett Square a heavily Mexican populated area try and speak like the spanish people in dialect/ accent now but I feel like I am insulting them. One final note we Philadelphians do not even realize we even have our own accent even though we do not know it. I sailed for 3 months out of Baltimore to the Caribbean and had many “east coasters” onboard week to week. Many people would come up to me and say “what part of Philly you from” all the time and I wouldn’t understand how they knew.

    Phil Stiefel

    March 26, 2009 at 11:03 am

    • Phil,

      It’s nice to hear from someone who’s worked with tourists in different areas like you have. And you bring up another interesting point – when there’s a very different dialect (including slang and idioms), can you adopt that to try to blend in or make people feel welcome, or are you just insulting them, like you say?

      I really think it’s a matter of degree and remembering to be respectful. But that’s a fine line to find – I think if I moved to Boston and tried to put on the accent to blend in, it’d probably be pretty obnoxious. But learning to say “pop” instead of “soda” to avoid strange looks seems perfectly acceptable.

      And Philadelphia certainly does have its own accent. It’s funny how we all find everyone else’s accents so noticeable, while forgetting that ours is just as obvious to them.

      Nathanael Green

      March 26, 2009 at 6:26 pm

  3. It is a fine line to find but also that line is different in different places… For example I always tried to learn a few words like please, thank you, hello, how are you, kind of things to get around locations.. especially ones I knew I would be at multiple times. Some places like France did not appreciate it and almost found in insulting/ condescending… Other places like B.C. and say parts of Italy really seemed to appreciate it… like you said in your response to Brian it all comes with not making it sound abrasive…

    Phil Stiefel

    March 26, 2009 at 6:52 pm

    • Interesting that some people didn’t appreciate the effort in a different language. I’m with you that I try to pick up at least the basic niceties in a foreign language and my experience has always been that people appreciate the effort if you just try a little bit.

      Nathanael Green

      March 26, 2009 at 10:15 pm

  4. When I was in the UK and Ireland I felt really self conscious about my American accent, especially when it came to slang. It took me forever to start using “Cheers” as thank you, and when I did I felt like such a poser. I ended up speaking softly, hoping people wouldn’t notice as much. It’s hard not to use local colloquialisms when you’re in that setting, though. When I returned from Dublin, my London host remarked, “I see you’ve picked up ‘grand.'”

    I think it also has to do with how we process and learn language. Just as when you’re a baby, you learn and adapt to language as you hear it. They same thing happens as an adult, but some people are more sensitive to it.


    March 27, 2009 at 12:13 pm

    • That’s a perfect example and well said! So how did your London host feel about you using “grand?” And did you still feel awkward about it?

      Those little words like cheers and grand just sneak right in. Try spending some time in Scotland and you’ll use “aye” like it’s punctuation.

      And you’re right. It’s natural for us to adapt our speech to what we hear, but I think we’re just more self-conscious about it as we get older. Even though as adults, we’re still prone to changes in our speech. A study showed that even the Queen of England’s accent has changed over the years so we’re all prone to it, it’s just noticeably sudden when we’re in a foreign place.

      Nathanael Green

      March 27, 2009 at 12:37 pm

      • My London host was just teasing me. She was surprised at how much I knew about British culture, but I’m such an Anglophile, it sort of felt just like home. She got all excited when she offered me a “cuppa” and I knew what it was! Her brother, however, had a fine time taking the piss out of me when I said certain words, such as “duty.” He thought it sounded like I was saying “doodie” and many poop jokes followed.


        March 27, 2009 at 1:03 pm

        • Ah, nothing bridges cultural and linguistic differences like a few good poop jokes!

          Nathanael Green

          March 27, 2009 at 3:40 pm

  5. What’s this?!? Even the Queen’s accent has changed over the years? That can only mean one thing: there are no universals (except that one, of course). The painted veil is gone, I now see the universe for the chaotic thing it is.

    Brian O'Rourke

    March 28, 2009 at 9:33 am

  6. […] by Nathanael Green on April 2, 2009 In following up with my previous post on accents, I’ve collected a few interesting tidbits about accents that you may find […]

  7. My children are studying English Language at Swansea, maybe their English could be an English Language with a Welsh accent?…

    Thanks for your kind answers.

    French man of the Pyrenees.


    April 17, 2009 at 5:02 pm

    • It’s certainly possible that your children will learn English with a Welsh accent. Often, when people learn a new language, though, it’s very difficult to speak with a native accent, and they’ll pronounce the new language’s words using the sounds of their mother tongue. So in that case, if your childrens’ first language is French, it’s possible that they’ll speak English with at least something of what we’d consider a French accent, and that might stand out to English speakers more than the Welsh influence.

      That said, depending on their teachers, time spent in the area and their ear for languages, their English could quite possibly have a Welsh accent. It’s also likely that they’ll pick up area-specific vocabulary, which contains a number of words that are derived from the Welsh language and are peculiar to the area. And especially if they live in the area for any extended time, I would guess that there will be some Welsh influence on their language.

      Thanks for the question!

      Nathanael Green

      April 19, 2009 at 5:15 pm

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