The other morning I was placing an order in my local bagel establishment when the sweet-looking elderly woman next in line accosted me. “You’re Australian, aren’t you?” she said with a knowing smile.
“British, actually. But I get that a lot.”
And I do. At least once a month. Very rarely, people guess I’m South African, but for the most part it’s the land down under.
“Oh you must be Scottish then?” she continued.
“No, actually. I’m from Leeds.”
“Northern England. Sort of near Liverpool, but not really.”
“Oh yes, now I hear it. You sound like a Beatle.”
I cannot begin to tell you how many times I’ve had this exact same conversation. Some people get very offended if you suggest they’re from somewhere they’re not. New Zealanders, I have found, take exception should you be naïve enough to ask them if they’re Australian. Canadians likewise if you inquire whereabouts in the U.S. they reside. Personally, I don’t mind where a stranger guesses I’m from, but I do find the Australian one curious as I don’t consider myself to be an uptalker (you know, when everything sounds like a question? Even though it isn’t? Even when you’re making a statement?). These high-rising terminals are the dead giveaway of spoken Australian-English so either I do in fact speak this way or the average American can’t tell the difference between regional British accents and Australian ones. I believe it’s the latter.
Either way I have a theory on why Americans are always surprised to learn that I’m English (and when I say ‘theory’ I mean it in the most unscientific way possible). It’s because Hollywood only depicts two types of British-English accents. One is the Received Pronunciation of actors such as Hugh Grant, Colin Firth and Emma Watson, and the other is the cheeky Cockney twang of Michael Caine, Ray Winstone and the Orcs in The Lord of the Rings (who apparently aren’t from Middle-earth at all but rather the East End of London). So when an American hears a Geordie, Scouse or Brummie accent, they don’t associate it with Britain and therefore may assume it must be Australian. They could guess Welsh, Irish, South African, New Zealand, Maltese or Gibraltarian to name a few, but invariably they don’t.
There is more to this problem than geography, though. Communicating effectively with Americans through a thick Yorkshire accent on a daily basis can be both confusing and traumatizing. I recall an incident a few years ago when I was ordering a milkshake at a popular Manhattan burger joint. There were three flavors on the menu: vanilla, chocolate and banana. I ordered banana.
“Excuse me?” said the nonplussed waiter.
“A banana milkshake, please,” I repeated.
“You wanna what milkshake?”
“I can’t understand you, man.”
So then I said it in my best American accent, short and sharp, omitting the long vowel sound: ba-na-na instead of bar-nar-nar. The waiter understood me immediately (though when I thought about it later it occurred to me that the waiter should perhaps have been able to work out through a process of elimination that I wasn’t saying either “vanilla” or “chocolate” before the word “milkshake,” and by default conclude that I was saying “banana” but there you go…)
Even though my life would be made significantly easier if I adapted my speech a little, I simply can’t bring myself to say things like war-der, toe-may-do and vie-dah-min. Not that there’s anything wrong with speaking this way, it’s just I’d rather wade through the conversational swamp than surrender my Yorkshire tongue for the sake of convenience.
Besides, in recent years things have gotten a lot better. The surge in popularity of TV shows depicting characters with regional British accents has gone a long way in helping Americans to identify them. These days I’m just as often told by an American that I sound like Ygritte from Game of Thrones or William from Downton Abbey as I am queried about being Australian.
I must point out that none of this is to say that things are any better the other way around. Could the average Brit tell the difference between, say, a Minnesotan accent and a Saskatchewanese one? Highly doubtful. But the difference is an American would usually be clearly understood anywhere she went in Britain and the reverse, as I know only too well, is not true. That being said, it is not always possible for a Brit to understand his fellow countryman. On a recent trip to Scotland, I had a 15-minute conversation with a Glaswegian and, to this day, have absolutely no idea what he was talking about. Maybe he was asking me for a banana milkshake?
Are you a Brit living in America with a regional U.K. accent? Tell us your stories in the comments below. And @MindTheGap_BBCA on Twitter is talking about accents, both British and American, in this week’s upcoming #MindTheChat Wednesday (May 7) at 2 pm ET. Tweet your questions and thoughts using hashtag #MindTheChat for a chance to win the Doctor Who Risk game.