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My war of independence with American English

Tom Greaney

Budlight 300x225 My war of independence with American EnglishMy voice is my identity. In a foreign land it defines me. I open my mouth and people know where I am from. I’ve been in America for over a year now and it looks like I will be here for the foreseeable but I have one major fear: Americanisms.

I’m not knocking the way our American friends speak. Good luck to them. But I’m from Reading in England. And I want to sound as if I’m from Reading in England.

The problem stems from a key issue of awareness. British children grow up putting on American voices when playing make believe games. Then as they grow older, we watch frightfully adult-like teenagers “hang out”at ice cream parlours on Nickelodeon. American children don’t grow up watching Blue Peter.

Simply, Brits know the Americanisms, Americans don’t know the Britishisms. Rule number one: Never ask an American if they will let you “bum a fag”.

Still I struggle on and try to remain forever Reading or as someone once told me in St. Louis “You know, you don’t sound like David Cameron”.

Here are the key battlegrounds:

“That’s so funny”

I first noticed this watching ‘The Office’ with an American in 2003 at University in Norwich.  When something funny happened she didn’t laugh. Not even a smile. She just remarked. “That’s so funny.” At the time this struck me as odd.

Yet nearly a decade later, now living in America, I have found myself sat stony-faced listening to a genuinely amusing story and simply nodding before saying “That’s so funny.” I sound like an ill-prepared alien trying to fit in on earth.

I have no idea how genuine laughter has been overtaken by simply stating feelings. Perhaps if I was burning to death I wouldn’t scream but instead calmly say, “That’s so painful”.

“Like”

It’s a disease. The ‘like’ disease. It is pure filler and instantly makes any person sound dumb. Yet, like, I like, keep like, hearing it like, coming out, like, of my mouth. Like. Driving me wild. The only way I can control it is by speaking slower, which makes me look even slower. There is no way to win.Yet despite my own travails, this doesn’t bother my Geordie friend who lives in New York, as he puts me it:“We say like all the time anyway like”

“I’m going to get”

At a restaurant when the “server” comes over he or she isn’t greeted with “Please may I have?” But the micro managing “I’m going to get” or “I’m gonna grab.” It’s rude and egotistical mania. People commentating on their ordering as it happens. “I’m gonna start with the salad, then I’m going to grab the grilled fish before going home via McDonalds to fill myself up with 3 dollar menu cheeseburgers”

“Socialist”

Fox News and others like it have ruined words. They have brutalised the beautiful language we gave them and used it for evil.

President Obama is regularly dubbed as a “socialist” on Fox News. “Socialist” is on a par with “Nazi” over here. When you think Socialist you think Tony Benn or that lovely Owen Jones. You don’t tend to think evil. By muddying the water of these words and confusing their meaning everyone is confused. The debate can’t start as the words are misunderstood to begin with.

Even words such as “liberal” and “progressive” have been redefined with negative qualities. When Prime Minister David Cameron recently spoke to a group of university students in New York, he described himself as a “liberal conservative”, on noticing the tension in the room he hastily added “Liberal as in the British way, not as it is over here.” The room relaxed. Phew.

“I’ll have a Sprite”

Ordering by brand. That’s a bad one. Probably the scariest. Just becoming the corporate robot Mitt Romney wants us all to be. Speaking in brands is extremely prevalent in America. “Google” isn’t a verb.  “My iPhone” rather than “My phone.” It is incredibly easy to do.

I remember being back in England to visit and out for a curry with a friend. The waiter comes over and is taking the drinks order. I say, “I’ll have a Sprite.” My friend looked at me. The waiter looked at me. I didn’t know why. Then I realised.

“Oh. A lemonade. I’ll have a lemonade.” I said, correcting myself.

All was well again as the waiter poured a Multipack “do not sell individually” lemonade bottle into my glass.  But it was too late. The social damage was done.

What to do?

Frankly I don’t know what to do. Do I live in a bubble of watching British television and film? Do I cling on to the past with no one understanding a word I say? Perhaps I’ll just put on a pair of slacks, throw on a sweater and grab a Bud.

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  • MichelleFWG

    You are right in that there is a difference between “accent” and “vocabulary”, but oddly, many people don’t consciously make that distinction, and that leads to people thinking you have a new accent when you really don’t.

    It is a case of being bi-lingual in a more nuanced way.  When my son is visiting me here in the US, I find that I will flip back to, say, “crisps” instead of “chips”, and “chips” instead of fries.  But even in my every day life now in the US, I still will naturally use some British vocabulary; I still use the word “queue”, especially since that particular word is reinforced by Netflix!

    The entire 20 years I lived in England, though, I never could rid myself of my native “y’all”.  It’s just too useful a word no matter where I have lived.

    Thank you for an interesting discussion.  Language has always fascinated me.  Ironically, my son is mildly autistic and spoke very, very little when he was young.  Social language is impaired in autistic people.  However, as he got older and began to speak more, he could flip back and forth between a flawless American accent and one from south London.  I tried so hard to convince him to speak in his American accent at his speech and language classes upon our return from summers spent in Texas, but he refused.  LOL!

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Kirill-Kazakov/100000163092250 Kirill Kazakov

    Although I am Russian by birth, your words have filled my heart with delight, sir :)  
    Srsly, an amusing piece of work — gave me the something to ponder upon. I’m aware that all the aforementioned does not concern me in the slightest (strictly for the natives to use, I mean), yet sometimes I think that it is time to draw the line between high and low English, as the Latin was once divided into vulgar and classical, lol :)


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