British expressions sound about as natural coming out of my mouth as Princess Beatrice’s famous wedding hat looked on her head.
But we humans – even the most introverted of introverts, like me – are essentially herd-like. We may say and think we prize non-conformity, but our instincts tell us: fit in. Fit in or be shunned by the herd.
Once upon a time, a failure to fit in spelled a cold, hungry, sexually-frustrated death for poor little oddball cavemen and women.
The good news for cavepeople: most humans acclimate pretty easily to their surroundings.
The bad news for me: I’m starting to sound like a crazy person. Considering how easy it is for foreign language to infiltrate brain and conversation, I shouldn’t be surprised to find myself doing some serious same-language code-switching* here in the UK. The edges of my northeastern US accent have been sanded off, the sound of my vowels now hangs somewhere over the Atlantic, and an over-enunciation of certain words makes me sound rather pretentious by home standards.
When visiting in my native Boston area, my r’s start to fade and my “wickeds” return – I’ve long got used to hearing my own speech morph to fit a situation. Still, the extent of change after only two and a half years of living in London feels a little embarrassing– especially when friends and family back home notice it (I can’t switch codes quite quickly enough, it seems).
It’s not just vocabulary and phrasing – classics like learning to say trousers instead of pants to avoid being snickered at here in the UK, or saying “have you got” instead of “do you have,” or remembering to ask for food “for take-away” instead of “to-go” – it’s also a mo(u)lding of my underlying speech patterns and rhythms, and their prosody. Where I pause, what I emphasize, how much and when my pitch rises and falls, how I land on my t’s and d’s – has all changed, little by little – making it easier for people here to understand me, and for me to blend in. I’m not pulling a Madonna but I’m definitely echoing the sound of British English. A fellow US expat and I were talking about this one evening and became so self-conscious as we called attention to our own speech that the conversation briefly collapsed into sheepish laughter.
All this has been more than a little helped along by the fact that my job requires me to be the public, British social media voice of an organisation – I spend much of the day editing my written self to sound more British, and asking colleagues to approve my pop culture references before I hit publish. It’s also helped along by the standard power dynamics inherent to accent adoption: US accents in general are not very loved here (the best possible impression we can hope for, I think, is “you sound like tv”), and most British ones, from a US perspective at least, have cultural prestige (of course language politics within the UK are fraught in and of themselves, but my relative ignorance as a foreigner permits a bit of blissful ignorance there). Dialect prestige doesn’t drive my intentions, but intellectually I do recogniz(s)e the inevitable subconscious influence on my cavewoman brain. There’s a complicated psychology behind why we speak the way we do.
And it’s not all subconscious, or I wouldn’t be writing a blog post about it! This comment in The Prodigal Tongue: The Love-Hate Relationship Between British & American English, by linguist Lynne Murphy, really resonated with me:
Any Briton in the United States or American in the United Kingdom has to make some crucial choices: which pronunciations to alter in their new country and which to keep as a matter of personal dignity. A complex calculation has to be made in weighing up the relative advantages of being understood, fitting in, and avoiding mockery versus the definite costs of losing one’s linguistic identity by saying things that sound plainly ridiculous to you… I have given in to tomahto because repeating tomaydo two or three times was slowing down my lunch orders.
Some of the ridiculous things that now come out of my mouth make me roll my eyes when I notice them: I often call food “nice”, the adjective the Brits seem to favo(u)r to describe food they’re enjoying, no matter how delicious it is, and not one I would ever thoughtfully choose at home. I sometimes replace “got along” with “got on” because the latter actually feels more appropriate in certain contexts – but #$% me, it is a very British thing to say. “Muck things up,” “good chat,” “proper,” “wanky,” “to fancy,” “keen,” “loo,” “on about,” “chuck,” “to be shit at something”… the list goes on and on.
But other Britishisms get to the very tip of my tongue before I remind myself that they will never sound right if I say them out loud: I could never call someone “mate”, for example. I did once describe a guy as “fit” in the British sense and nearly burst into flames with the shame of it. It’s the immediate cringe that comes of recogniz(s)ing just how hard your brain is working to make sure you fit in, a flash of (high) school-esque sycophantic humiliation, saying the wrong thing on the fringes of the crowd you desperately want to impress.
And despite all of this phonemic nonsense, I of course don’t blend in: people at the office delight in my particularly American rants, it sometimes takes a few too many “whats?” than is convenient to get my order across at the pub, or a friend points out a US turn of phrase like “it’s cold out” (“how literal, I like it!”)
So for now, my plight is to sound like a bit of a weirdo, everywhere. At the end of a visit to see family last winter, I was feeling pretty pleased with myself, thinking I’d managed to sound like I had my head on straight. On almost the last day, my dad, laughing, said “you use all kinds of British lingo now, it’s hilarious”.