Brits ‘Going Native’ in the U.S.: Can You Go Too Far?

This sloth knows how to keep it real. (Wiki)

This sloth keeps it real. (Wiki)

Most people in the U.S. and the U.K. comment that I haven’t lost my accent despite having been here for decades. Given that I was a grown-up when I came, it doesn’t seem too surprising to me, and I do wonder how some Brits start twanging away within months of stepping off the plane. (That’s genuine curiosity rather than condemnation, btw.) I recently met a guy who I confidently assumed was Australian, until about halfway through our conversation when he confessed he was English, and he’d only been here 10 months! I don’t know who was more embarrassed.

I usually say I haven’t made a conscious effort to resist “going native”, but truth be told, I probably have. You see, it always makes me squirm when I hear otherwise English-sounding Brits replacing the occasional “t” with a weak “d”, or inserting an audible “r” in words like start and farm. (Scots, Northern Irish and people from Cornwall have an audible “r,” although it’s still not quite the U.S. “r.”) Anyway, I try not to do it myself because I don’t want to end up sounding like Anthony Sullivan, the king of late-night infomercials. This “Grater Plater” ad is exactly what I’m talking about, see below.

On second thought, don’t listen to me, the guy’s made millions from his voice!

Although I have no problem saying “bayzil”, I can’t bring myself to drop the “h” from herb, nor can I attempt the American “tomato”. Not only does this require a change in the “a” sound, but I’d also have to replace the “t” with a “d”; too many changes in one word for a successful mission I think. (Admittedly, this has caused many a problem in sandwich bars, and I’m now adept at pointing or going without. They never understand my fake U.S. accent anyway.)

For some reason, adopting the American “o” sound has been less traumatic for me. The talk show queen is “Oh-prah” (as opposed to opera), we eat “yow-gurt” and “rizzow-tow”, and I’m just about managing to rhyme that big, hairy, flat-faced animal with cloth, instead of saying “slowth”. (You’d be surprised how often that animal’s name comes up when you have a 9-year-old!)

If you’re a Brit in the U.S. with Anglo-American children, your pronunciation can give rise to much mirth. Whenever I order hummus and pita bread my kids fall about the place. What’s wrong with pronouncing it hoomuss and pit-a-bread fer cryin’ out loud? (Round these parts it’s “hum us” and “peeta bread”.)

Speaking of kids, I grew up in a time and place where “butt”, “fart”, “crap” and “fanny” were words that one didn’t hear coming out of the mouths of babes; my kids still get a right old telling-off if I hear any of these, and I don’t care if “everyone else here says it.”

Toni Hargis

Toni Hargis

Toni Summers Hargis is a Brit who has lived in the USA since 1990. She currently lives in Chicago with her husband and children and writes about US/UK matters when not putting out domestic fires. Toni blogs as Expat Mum and is the author of Rules, Britannia - An Insider's Guide to Life in the United Kingdom, (St. Martin's Press). She has made frequent appearances on radio and TV explaining British things to Americans.

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  • http://twitter.com/emmakaufmann emmakaufmann

    I don’t think I have gone native pronunciation-wise even after 12 years although I do say tomayto now like an american. The downside is my kids don’t really understand some things I say but they will learn with time! I recently taught them cockney rhyming slang even though it is not my native tongue and they constantly use it like ‘did you do a raspberry fart?’ or ‘your plates of meat stink’ so hopefully i’m enriching their vocab!!

  • http://www.facebook.com/graeme.c.robinson Graeme Robinson

    Sorry, we’re speaking English, not French, so its ‘herb’ with a very audible ‘h’. I will admit to breaking down and asking for a glass of ‘wader’ when out for dinner.

    Coming from Blighty where the accent changes every 20 miles, it never ceases to amaze me how many Americans are so utterly confused by what, to me, seems like small changes in inflection or pronunciation.

    • jemblue

      But if we’re writing in English, we should also know the difference between “it’s” and “its.”

  • TheWanderer22

    I confess to having a considerable American twang after only six months of living in the US. However, I still face the embarrassment of having to repeat myself when asking for water in a restaurant. I can’t face trying out a phony ‘wadder’. Usually I have to resort to making my husband do it.

  • Pingback: Going Native: Americanising the Brit | thewanderer22

  • iota

    I had to add in that ‘r’ (as in ‘burrrgerrrr’) because my surname has one (no, I’m not Mrs Burger, but you get the point). I got fed up with spelling it out. Once I’d added an rrr into my own name, the rest came fairly easily!

    • expatmum

      Me too. It’s even harder when you have to spell it out and there’s an R in the middle!

      • Jeff K.

        There is a fast food chain in the southwest called “Whataburger” that my brother and I loved when we were kids. Since we usually went with my mom’s friend who was British, though, we grew up honestly thinking it was called “Waterburger.” It still works for us, even though no one usually knows what on Earth we are talking about. ;-)

  • MontanaRed

    There are some of us who cannot help but pick up whichever accent is around us, whether it be US Southern (I do this when talking with relatives on the phone), one of the British accents, Irish (hard to resist that lilt), or the French accent in English… I hear and repeat them without even meaning to. If I stayed in Britain for any length of time, I know I would embarrass myself mightily by acquiring some odd hybrid of an accent as I attempted to NOT pick up a British one. This ability/compulsion may arise from having Spanish as my first language, then switching to English when I was about five years old.

    • JR48

      No I think it’s just because some of us verbally ‘sing harmony’. Born and raised in CA with English as my first language; I felt like I had ‘no accent’. Spent a day with some distant cousins from Texas and by the end of it, I had a bit of a southern drawl.

      Put me anywhere long enough and I’m going to sing harmony. And yes, it won’t be uniform, I’d be some bizarre hybrid, sure to insult someone without meaning to!

  • Jeff K.

    Okay, obviously as an American reading this blog, I am a bit of an Anglophile, but the inability of Americans to understand the (what i understand is referred to as the “BBC”) British pronunciation of “water” baffles me. It seems clear enough. Of course, in California (particularly here in Los Angeles), one hears a number of different nationals attempting to speak English every day, so we tend to get used to a broader range of pronunciation.

  • IspeakAmericannotEnglish

    It always amazes me when people have trouble understanding plain english, be it from Boston, New Orleans, Wisconsin, Great Britain, or wherever. Perhaps if people used their ears? Or, heaven forbid, their ears and brains in tandem?

    As far as going ‘native’. . . do as you like. I won’t judge. :)

  • Matthew Wright

    You can tell when a Brit has stayed just a little too long in the States, they start taking crushed ice in ‘soda’. Until recently, we took our bear and soft drinks warm to avoid hypothermia…

    • http://twitter.com/molly_moggs Molly Moggs

      “Soda” isn’t used in all regions of the US. It’s actually probably used in fewer places than “pop”, but probably more than where it’s called “coke” (whether you’re drinking Pepsi, RC, or Coca-cola. Hollywood uses “soda” more than the other variations.

      But, yes, learning that ice improves the flavour is probably an indication that someone has realised that their adopted home isn’t wrong about everything.

      • geegee

        i’m from tx and we definitely say what kind of coke do you want? and i do mean sprite, dr pepper, etc. but my dad’s from oklahoma and he sometimes still says soda pop!

  • http://twitter.com/molly_moggs Molly Moggs

    I am the opposite here. An American who has lived for years in the UK and became a British citizen a few years ago.

    I learned to say things so that I could be understood and to limit the amount of teasing I took. Asking the greengrocer for some “toe mate toes” opened me up to teasing. Saying that we were having grilled “eggplant” produced blank looks. I use the British pronunciations because it is easier in my day to day life. My New England accent has probably softened, but I don’t speak with a British accent. There have been times I wished I could just adopt one to avoid the questions and the (occasional) presumptions, but now people can either take me as I am, a British person who loves her adopted land and might speak a little differently than they do, or leave me.

    As far as what’s proper and what’s not, as some people have commented: it’s all proper. English is a mongrel. If “‘erb” is wrong, please don’t say “left ten it” is right. People from different parts of the world speak English differently. Because of how it has evolved from so many sources, even before the Empire, makes it so lovely, rich and huge. You know that writers in other languages envy us and our big, wild language.

    It doesn’t help when people are trying to learn it, or when we uproot ourselves to some place where people have their own rules about how to speak “properly”, but I am sure no commenter here is so provincial as to claim seriously we should only look to RP for a guide.

    • jemblue

      The American pronunciation of “lieutenant” is closer to French, anyway. The British pronunciation of the word makes absolutely no sense.

  • Ron Gletherow

    I’m glad you still speak English gooder, Toni, like wot I do…………. just kidding!

  • Jerry Bradley

    I do agree that some of the fine people that work in sandwich shops may not be smartest people in America, but I would wager that most all of them would understand if you asked for a Tomaydo or a Tomahto on your sandwich.

  • Lavina Lavina

    My family makes fun of me all the time for saying Herb instead of erb. I have to make a conscious effort to drop the H. Ah well, whatever

  • Brea

    Very interesting to read everyone’s posts. I am an American and my husband is a Brit. We live in the US but are in Britain a few weeks out of every year. I find myself using his slang and losing my accent more and more everyday(especially if we are watching alot of British TV). When we are in Britain it is terrible! I hate that I lose my accent and it is embarrassing. People think I do it on purpose but I don’t. My husband is apparently immune from this. He almost doesn’t pick up any American slang and his accent is as thick as ever. Does anyone know why some people are more prone to this than others and what it is called?