Are You Australian?: A British Expat Discusses Mistaken Nationality in America

(Photo: Fotolia)

(Photo: Fotolia)

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.”

“Where’s that?”

“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?”

“Banana.”

“What?”

“Banana.”

“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.

See more:
The British Geordie Dialect – From Another Planet?
Eight Yorkshire Sayings That Will Baffle Americans
Brits in America: 5 Small Signs You’re Going Native

  • mannypeacecat

    I’m a Geordie and I get Australian all the time… just have to laugh, and try to gently explain that not all Brits are from London

    • expatmum

      A lot of people mistake my mild Geordie accent for irish. I suppose, since it’s not RP, it’s as good a guess as any.

      • mannypeacecat

        Oh yeah, I get irish quite a bit too: I suppose it’s closer than Oz :-)

  • Steve

    The one word I get that throws a lot of american’s is ham! Many times I’ve tried to order at sandwich and got blank looks when asking for ham. I am from the midlands, Coventry not Birmingham so no brummy accent, and don’t think I have a strong accent.
    I also get the Australian one quite a lot.

  • Sara Howell

    I’m from London and I also get asked if I’m from Australia or New Zealand so I’m not sure its just that they get confused with other british accents. I also get asked if I’m Irish frequently, and I live in Boston where you would think people know an Irish accent!

    • frozen01

      I’m better than a lot of Americans when it comes to English accents, but even I have difficulty sometimes differentiating between an Australian accent and some of the London ones (unless I hear them side-by-side).

  • Gillsies

    Asking for water always causes a confused look…especially if you ask for tap water…lol
    There again asking for directions to Broad Street…especially in Boston..can be tricky..and fustrating…lol

  • Jennie B

    Before Christmas I was mistaken for Australian. It’s happened before that too.
    I was born in Liverpool and lived in Merseyside, but I don’t have a Scouse accent. So I tell people that I am from Liverpool, since Americans have usually heard of the city. But I don’t sound like the Beatles.

  • Tim Callaghan

    Australian accents for the most part are very distinct and cannot be mistaken for australian; however, I generally simply ask “Where are you visiting from?” as I don’t want to make a fool out of myself by assuming…..

    • Tim Callaghan

      I meant not mistaken for British!

    • frozen01

      But aren’t you assuming that they’re visiting when you say that?

  • Michele Geller

    Wonderful Stories! I have been here in the US for 24 years and lived in various countries in Western Europe beforehand. Every single person I meet asks me where I’m from. I compliment those who state “South African”, as Dutch is my second language, but that’s not because I’ve ever been there. I imagine that a true New Zealander would cringe if they heard my accent being identified as such, as much as an Aussie would cringe that they are bantered about in the same sentence. On the few occasions where I do go home, I am yet again asked – “Where in the States are you from?” Always the foreigner! I remember as a child, having the most awful time understanding my great Uncle Son, who spoke with an East End accent and talked about his strife up the pears – I had not a clue what he was talking about! After returning to my home country at 26, after a 13 year absence, I remember not being able to understand my colleagues with their thick Brummie accents…any way, ask me where I’m from and I’ll probably answer: I hold a British passport, but I’m a world citizen…and then answer my daughter’s phone call only to say “Ban-arn-er, Warter and toe-mar-toe” to a bunch of high school kids, on speaker phone, in fits of giggles….oh well….

  • Graeme Robinson

    My toned-down Glaswegian accent gets mistaken for Australian all the time. When explaining that I’m actually from Scotland, I frequently get complimented on how well I’ve picked up English.

    • Marsha Smith

      I love Scottish accents. The Queen Mother was from Scotland but I think I read somewhere that she never wanted her voice recorded. Does anyone remember hearing her speak?
      I can’t believe she sounded anything like the voice Helena Bonham-Carter used in *The King’s Speech.*

      • expatmum

        She was incredibly posh and clipped. Even more so that the Queen. It was quite a high and squeaky voice though so she might not have liked that.

        • Marsha Smith

          Hmmm – well I guess Helena BC got it right then.

          • expatmum

            I actually thought it was a teeny bit too contemporary. Posh enough but not high enough.

    • Anne-Mary

      I know you no doubt find that insulting, but since my grandparents were Gaelic-speaking and my father grew up in southern England, I believed for a long time that everyone in Scotland spoke Gaelic as their first language and English as their second. (I know better now, of course).
      Also, my part of Australia (around Adelaide) was settled mostly by Glaswegians and other Lowlanders, so the accent around there still has a lot of Scottish-y traits. It’s a thought, although Americans tend to think that the only sort of Australian accent is that of Sydney or Brisbane, so I’m not sure they’d be familiar enough with Adelaide’s distinct one to mistake you for a South Australian!

  • Alan Richardson

    I’ve been mistaken for Canadian in England; Australian in the US and I’ve embarrassed myself confusing a Kiwi for an Aussie. As soon as a Canadian says ‘out’ I know … I’ve suffered the’banana’ and ‘milk’confusion, too; but that goes the other way sometimes when I have not been able to understand an American mainly because of vowel sounds I’ll hear ‘pin’ when pen is meant and vice versa ….

    • BlueCanaryInTheOutlet

      In my particular accent of AmE, “pin” and “pen” are pronounced exactly the same.

  • FancyNancy

    That is one of the best articles I’ve read so far. Very funny; I kept a smile the entire read!

  • ukhousewifeusa

    A lot of people assume I am Australian and one guy started talking to me about his time in Oz, and was so happy to talk to me that I just pretended I was Australian for the entire conversation!

    • expatmum

      That should be on the list of “typically British problems”. Ha ha ha.

  • ukhousewifeusa

    In fact, yesterday I was wearing a cowboy hat and a waitress asked me if I was Australian when I made my order. I said I wasn’t and she said my accent sounded like I was, and then she added ‘Maybe it’s the hat.’ WTF?!!! Hahaha! :)

  • http://www.nikkimoffitt.wordpress.com/ Nikki

    Apart from taking offense at being called an uptalker – which I most definitely am not, I accept your general observations on American recognition of other English speaking nation accents. ;) People always ask me where I’m from and generally guess South Africa or UK. Someone on the tennis court the other day asked me if I was German. I’m not sure about that one, it might have been the way I was calling the points? When I say I’m Australian, people say – Ooh that’s great can you just keep talking? If I had admitted to German or British citizenship then would they ask me to keep talking, I am unsure on this point but perhaps should test it at some future time.

  • hi there

    I agree that most Americans are hopeless when it comes to UK vs. Australian accents. However, I’m glad you pointed out that British people seem oblivious to the variety of American accents. Judging by the generally awful “American” accents I hear on BBC shows, British people seem to believe that American sound either like 19th century cowboys or hammy Sopranos cast members.

    • LeighMariana

      Whilst I agree that many people can’t tell the difference between regional American accents without stereotyping, I have to say the BBC Amercian accents are not a true representation of British opinions. The amount of American shows and films which are shown daily on British televsion is huge and therefore, we know the reality of accents better than one might think. Just felt I had to point that out :)

    • alkh3myst

      How many American regional accents can you correctly identify? This is why it’s not a big issue with us, where in the English-speaking world you come from. The USA has a MUCH more diverse population than the UK, with many more foreign accents, and levels of English comphrehension. We’d spend the whole day asking people where they’re from, and people aren’t into wasting time like that even in England, I’m sure.

  • maggie

    I have no problems with my accent being recognized as anything other than English. There are quite a number of us here in NH. I lost my broad Derbyshire accent many years ago after spending 4 years in the Navy and 20 years in various Middle Eastern Countries. I did get mistaken for a Yemeni when I lived in Egypt because of the accent of my Arabic and in Saudi I was thought to be Lebanese which is where I learned Arabic.

    • expatmum

      Funny Maggie – I can say two sentences in Arabic and apparently I sound Lebanese too! (Haven’t been there though.)

  • CO2VA

    I was wearing a union jack t-shirt and a baseball cap that had ‘England’ on the front when I was asked that question in a store. I was so gobsmacked my (American) wife had to answer for me. Most Americans can’t tell the difference between English, Scots, Irish, Australian or South African accents and I have no idea why. Because they are so insular maybe?

    • Jwb52z

      Being insular is part of it and it’s just something that happens when you’re in a place where you don’t have a reason or opportunity to hear someone with a non-American accent. In my opinion, however, if you can’t tell the difference once you’ve heard each one, you’re not really paying close enough attention.

      • MontanaRed

        I think that judgement is a bit harsh… I have a pretty good ear for languages, which has served me well. But I have also met people (my late grandmother included) who simply *cannot* hear the subtleties of pronunciation. Everything is filtered into their birth language’s phonetic system. So I don’t think it’s so much an attention problem as it is the brain’s wiring becoming set as language is learned. And we all are different where that is concerned.

    • ProudYankee

      Maybe they were giving you the benefit of that doubt that English people know how to dress?

    • BlueCanaryInTheOutlet

      I can tell the difference between a Korean accent and a Vietnamese one, but I can’t tell the difference between a UK accent and an Australian one. Why? Because I’ve heard far more of the former than the latter in the area where I live.

      I’ve no doubt that if I spent some time in the UK (or Australia), I’d have no time distinguishing between the two.

  • Gillian Nix

    A Leamington Spa, Warwickshire girl living in Michigan. Thirty five years of the ‘are you from Australia?’ question! I have also been asked if I’m from Canada, the South, New York and on one memorably strange occasion France!!
    On a side note, I did notice that you used the very American ‘gotten’ in your article; a word a stubbornly refuse to associate myself with.

    • Johnathan Riley

      I’m from Lancashire, if I go abroad I don’t know if I will get my accent mistaken someday, I imitate a New Zealand accent and get called I sound like I’m from Australia all the time, if I did a Canadian one they would say I sound like I’m from America too

      • frozen01

        My other half is also from Lancashire (Bolton… okay, okay, that’s Greater Manchester, but don’t tell him I said that), and since moving here, he hasn’t been misidentified as Australian yet. He has, however, been mistaken as Italian… twice.

    • Elizabeth

      As long as you understand that Americans did not invent the word ‘gotten’. It’s origins are British. I realize you will refuse to believe this so do Google the word and its history.

      • Gillian Nix

        Elizabeth, as we do not know each other I am at a loss as to how you know that I ‘will refuse to believe this’. I am fully aware of the origin of ‘gotten’, however, it is certainly not used in my neck of the woods.

    • BlueCanaryInTheOutlet

      To be a pedant, “gotten” is actually the older usage; AmE has merely retained it.

      Michigan has its own distinct regional accent–nearly Canadian, but not quite. Its accent (and culture) have been influenced by its Nordic immigration.

  • expatmum

    I love taking my American husband back to Tyneside; the more drink is consumed (by both him and Geordies) the less chance there is of him understanding anything even after 24 years of marriage.
    As for me understanding Americans, before we were married I had a really hard time keeping pace with my Texan in-laws. They have quite the accent so Paris comes out more like Peeris, and they speak so slowly that I was racing ahead of them in trying to anticipate what they were trying to say.

    • Jwb52z

      I’m lucky then because people tell me I speak really fast for a Texan. In what part of Texas do they live? Some of the more out of the way areas of Texas are very thick in accent.

      • expatmum

        One was raised in West Texas and the other in Greenville, then Dallas. They’ve spent the last 50 years in Arkansas so perhaps that’s it. LOL

        • Jwb52z

          I think you’re on to something. Combining many places in West Texas, the area and not the town actually named West, would create quite a muddled accent if the person isn’t careful. That’s probably the majority of the problem. Dallas and Greenville should have tempered it just a hair though, depending on how long someone lived in either place.

    • Anne-Mary

      I don’t mind Texas because it’s slow enough I can understand it through the accent (although I get some annoyed comments from locals about me talking too fast). It’s the other accents, like LA (where we landed) and Arkansas (where we went next) that really frustrated me, as I couldn’t understand a thing! It’s both a thick accent *and* really fast.
      (In fact, those first few days in LA, I tended to turn to the nearest Mexican and get him/her to translate into Spanish for me. At least whoever it was took into account that Spanish was my second language and used simple vocabulary, and the Mexican accent is slow compared to the Salamancan/Spanish one I learnt anyway).

  • Catherine Rosbottom

    I have often been asked if I’m Scottish, to which I usually state that I’m from about 2 hours south of Scotland. ( I’m from Wigan). Maybe if Coronation Street was more widely available in the US, people wouldn’t make that mistake.

    • alkh3myst

      Maybe we don’t care that much, since you speak the same language. Have you ever thought that explains the situation? Americans aren’t losing any sleep over which part of England you come from, and why should we? You should be happy we take the time to ask you. In New York, we hear every accent on earth, there aren’t enough hours in the day to ask everybody where they’re from. Self-absorbed foreigners…

  • Ryan Munro

    I (an American) mistook a Canadian for and American in Scotland. In true Canadian fashion the offense taken was adorable.

  • garryej

    I used to have trouble separating the Ozzie and Kiwi until I visited NZ. If you can’t understand hardly anything they say, if they shift all their vowels, then they’re a Kiwi! (don’t get me wrong – they are some of the nicest, friendliest, most generous people I’ve ever met – and their country is without parallel! It’s AWESOME! But you have to listen very, very closely to some of them!)

  • Debbie Holden

    I am American and lived in Manchester for 5 years. I have a fairly strong Philadelphia accent and was always asked if I was Irish. I never could understand how anyone thought I sounded Irish when I speak like Rocky Balboa.. ha ha

    • expatmum

      Debbie – when I first moved to Chicago (from Dallas) I couldn’t believe how many mid-westerners I thought were irish. And I was and am very attuned to the irish accent. It’s probably slightly different here but if you’re don’t have the generic TV American accent, as we see, it can get taken for anything.

    • alkh3myst

      This is because these same whining English people can’t tell the first thing about American accents. They need to get over themselves.

  • Jwb52z

    Why is it “Glaswegian” instead of something like “Glasgoan”? I mean, I understand “Norwegian” because Norway is a country, but the pattern doesn’t seem to follow logically when used in referring to a city.

  • Rachel

    I am lucky as I have a home counties accent, which means I sound like every British villain or Middle-Earth elf on the big screen. When I was in Japan though they thought I was American which I thought was very surprising!

    • MontanaRed

      On my first visit to France, I was mistaken for British (I’m American). Why? Because I didn’t have a tan! LOL The insidious effects of Southern-California-centric TV and movies!

    • alkh3myst

      Gosh, the JAPANESE can’t tell the difference between a British and American accent! What’s wrong with them? Don’t they know that learning to recognize British accents is an official duty of every person on earth who speaks English? No matter how foreign English is to them? I lose sleep at night over this.

      I can just imagine some English man 200 years from now: “Why, those aliens thought I was Australian, when it’s obvious that I’m from Yorkshire. The nerve! Why don’t their language machines teach them something important?”

  • Karen Frenchy

    Frenchy here, living in Texas: I have often been told I had an accent but people cannot really guess from where. They end up asking me “Are you Mexican?” or “Are you Australian?” Hahaha
    One of our 7yo daughter’s classmate is English. I caught her speaking with him using an English accent. If she speaks to my husband she will have a mild texan accent, but uses a quite heavy southern one with my in-laws and her teachers. As far as her French accent is concerned, it is southern ;)

  • Marsha Smith

    I’ve watched British TV for as long as I could pick up PBS on my TV so I can usually pick up an Aussie accent. And you’re right about someone should be able to guess the word from the sentence meaning!
    However, it is in my own country that much hilarity can sometimes ensue. I used to be employed by a company that had phone calls from all over the country. One day I was talking a fellow from I don’t remember where and he said *Dear you’re going to have to slow down. I’m having trouble with your southern accent.*
    But since I now have Acorn TV I will be watching even more British TV!

  • Jacqueline Jones

    Yes, happens to me all the time – Water (wadddder) is another frustration (does it still have a T in it? is it there for a reason!!!) hahahaha and only the other day the banana thingy!!!

    • ProudYankee

      It also has an “r” at the end for a reason, British people, not an “ah” !

  • Sylvia

    I’m a Londoner but have lived in California for 35 years! (oh my how time flies!) When I was first here I tried to order vermouth over ice with a twist of lemon. Pronouncing in VERmuth in the British way, the waitress kept asking me if I wanted bourbon. In the end I channeled my inner Jack Nicholson (5 Easy Pieces) and asked for a dry vodka martini but hold the vodka. I got my drink and learned to say verMOOTH.

  • Maria Dyson

    Enjoyed the posts. And learned a lot. I live in a suburb of New Orleans, Louisiana, and feel obliged to report that most accents used in movies when portraying New Orleanians is grossly over-Cajuned! Now, move a bit south or southeast into bayou country and you’ll hear all the chers and bebes you could wish for.

    • alkh3myst

      English people can’t tell a New Orleans accent from a New Jersey accent, but they all expect us to sit up nights learning all 10,000 of their accents. Not gonna happen.

  • theworldahead

    I’m American, but I have this bet on with my boyfriend that I can always differentiate between Kiwi and Ozzie accents. We were at a lecture and I was overjoyed to hear that the moderator was from New Zealand. My boyfriend was convinced he was Australian because he had gotten his degrees in Sydney, but I looked it up later – born and raised in NZ! (Of course, I’m sure I’ll get stumped one day, but I love the Kiwi accent so I can usually pick it out.)

    Also, when I was abroad in the UK, I got into some discussions with my hosts about pronunciation, and banana came up several times. The American pronunciation of it is so inelegant!

    • BlueCanaryInTheOutlet

      I think it’s cool that you’re so good at distinguishing accents, but…I really don’t understand you with the banana thing. Why does it need an extra ‘r’ on the end?

      • theworldahead

        I’m not sure I understand the question? The people I met pronounced it ba-’naw-nuh, instead of ba-’nah-nuh.

  • hc1951

    Born in Harrow-on-the-Hill when my Sheffield-born parents were teaching there in ’51, then moving to Australia in the mid-’60s, New Zealand for High School, back to Queensland in the ’70s and finally to the US in 1980, I can soo relate to this conversation :-) I drive a taxi on weekends and “you have an accent??” comes up a lot I usually give the country list then state the accent is from Sisters (OR) ;-)

  • expat71

    After being in the US for over 20 years, I always ask if I’m Australian, fact is, when I go back home for a visit, I’ve been asked the same question in London LOL.

    • Karen Evans

      I find that hard to believe. When I was in the States, I was asked where I was from. When I said Australia, they thought it was Austria. It was like they hadn’t even heard of Australia.

  • Neil

    This happens to me a lot. I am from an Essex town just north of London. I think it is in part due to the 12 years I’ve been in the US and the effect that has had on my accent. I’ve noticed this on other UK expats too, once that slight American twang kicks in you do sound slightly Australian – although certainly not enough to be mistaken for one!

    • MontanaRed

      Exactly. The modified or fading accent can be misleading in any English speaker from anywhere on the globe.

      • alkh3myst

        After more than 20 years riding in England, American jockey Eddie Cauthen was barely recognizable as being American, due to his picking up a British accent.

  • purpleevilt

    I moved to the US 23 years ago and have had this conversation countless times. The worst being the lady who said “you are Australian”, it wasn’t a question it was a statement of fact. I told her I wasn’t, she went on “you are South African”, nope, “you are Canadian”, nope. She then said, “well, where else speaks English”? Seriously!!

    • BlueCanaryInTheOutlet

      Herp derp!

  • Daen de Leon

    I speak what is probably charitably described as a mongrel mash-up of semi-RP, rural Essex and … whatever you end up with from living in Copenhagen for eight years. Australian seems to be the default US guess for someone who doesn’t speak like them, but clearly isn’t Hugh Grant or Ray Winstone, as Jon points out. I don’t mind it, but yes, there are literally a dozen other parts of the world where people speak oddly-accented English. Try varying your guesses, people of the US — I’d actually be quite entertained if you thought I hailed from Wales or Gib. :)

    • BlueCanaryInTheOutlet

      I thought like three people live in Gibraltar.<–[Obviously I am exaggerating, but it does have a low population size!] You can't all be from there. Wales is more credible.

  • Dani Roweking

    I am Australian and it annoys me no end when America tries to do our accent. We’ve all seen the Simpson’s ep when they come down under. Although, its not just the accent that offends me here…And we don’t all answer a question with an affectation at the end to sound like we’re making another question! Some parts of Australia do. But its like saying, as you said, everyone in England speaks like Hugh Grant. :)

    • Elizabeth

      I don’t think the question mark at the end of a sentence is regional. We still don’t have strong regional accents in Australia. It just seems to be an odd kind of style that some Australians have.

      I also find Australians seem to find more more words to shorten until some conversations sound quite juvenile. Love Australia – hate our accent.

    • alkh3myst

      Since you’re so annoyed, why don’t you go home?

  • Patty123

    I’ve been asked if I’m English (which I am), Irish, Scottish, Australian, and South African. The one I never understood was when a youngish girl at a department store checkout asked if I was German.

  • RAL

    Mine is a pretty non-descript English accent and I get the Australian thing all the time. Our NYC office is on Water Street and every time I get a cab from the airport I have to literally spell it out for the cab driver. So annoying!

    • alkh3myst

      Yeah, what’s wrong with us, not spending all our free time learning your multitude of regional accents? I don’t need to learn Ruby On Rails at all, let me just sit around watching British TV!

  • welcometo1984

    Let ‘em try to figure out the Geordie accent.

  • Stella

    Why do some of you get SO bent out of shape when someone mistakes the origin of your accent? I also don’t understand the refusal to pronounce some key words as Americans do in order to be better understood. To be so rigid and inflexible in your speech when in another country is just silly.

    • Bill

      Because accents, and how you speak in general is a whole lot more important in the UK than it is in the US. I won’t start trying to interpret why, since I am merely an Anglophile and not an actual Anglo. But my understanding is it comes down to class distinctions and stereotypes.

    • barlickgirl

      I find that incredibly patronising. I’ve been in the US for 14 years and physically CAN’T pronounce some things in an American accent. It’s not being stubborn .. I just can’t do it. Ordering water is a problem for me .. to the point that I occasionally have to get my US raised kids to do it on my behalf. Again, not a refusal to participate on my part, but an actual inability. I suspect you might have similar problems in the rural parts of northern England – as do both of my kids who were born there.

      • Cypressclimber

        Trouble ordering water? That fascinates me! I’m from Ohio: I think I say something like, “WAA-dur.”

        What do you say (if you don’t mind me asking)?

    • LittleMissCantBeWrong

      I can appreciate why certain words might be awkward or difficult to pronounce if that wasn’t the way you ever said those words. I have a fairly thick Long Island accent, and when I travel out of state I sometimes have a hard time making myself understood. Words like water or drawer are a particular challenge for me. So if I as an American have a hard time making myself understood to other Americans, I can only imagine the challenge that non-Americans face!

  • James

    I’m from Wetherby, near Leeds, and am mistaken for Australian 90% of the time. I now go with it, and have built up quite a persona of my time growing up in Sydney, surfing on Bondi beach, and sneaking into the Opera House as a kid. I get a good 20 minutes party piece conversation from it – and only get stuck when I meet someone who actually knows Australia and that we don’t all keep Koalas as pets!

    • BlueCanaryInTheOutlet

      Aussies like to call ‘em “Drop bears” and pretend they are fierce.
      Or so I hear…
      [Source: Aussie friends.]

  • ChadCMulligan

    There is strong over-representation of the upper-middle class English accent in our celebrity exports (Hugh Grant, Benedict Cumberbatch etc etc) – I wonder if people overseas are unaware that only a small proportion of English people speak like this, and, of course, the English are only a subset of the British.

    • Gem

      The rest of the English-speaking world does. We travel, have UK relatives or watch UK T.V. programming along with other countries’.

      The US seem to know very little about the rest of us, though, although it looks like some of them are beginning to get with the program, since they’ve developed a taste for Dr Who.

      If only they wouldn’t behave as though they invented it!

      • ProudYankee

        Honestly, there’s just not that much need for exposure to English accents in America. Unless one watches a lot of PBS, where else do you think Americans are supposed to get exposure to them? You guys know ours only largely because Hollywood is so influential worldwide. BBC America is still relatively new on the American landscape.

        I think Chad is right, except I would add Cockney to the list of English accents Americans might recognize, and I think most would know an Irish accent. Scottish, maybe, but I think you have Canadian Mike Myers to thank for that!

        • ProudYankee

          I would add that I’m always shocked at how much the British, and the world, have been steeped in US culture. I’ll see British people discussing some obscure old American television show, or something like the Beverly Hillbillies, that I never even knew they heard of. I was recently reading about British people having an issue with how the letter Z was pronounced on Sesame Street, and I never even knew they showed that over there. I realized how much the British have grown up with our culture. It helps me better understand why some of you seem somewhat threatened by it, so I have a little more empathy (a little) for how some of you make so many unkind jabs about it.

          • frozen01

            I nearly fell off the couch when my (English) husband said to me “why are you humming the theme to Sesame Street?” He’s a very recent immigrant so I was caught completely by surprise.

          • alkh3myst

            They also seem to think we do (or we should) sit up nights studying all their regional accents. Sorry, I have a life.

        • BlueCanaryInTheOutlet

          Mike Myers’ grandmother was Scottish, I believe…

      • DemonDeac

        *Sigh* not true of everyone in the US. There are about 315 million of us after all. Dr Who is great though.

      • LittleMissCantBeWrong

        Doctor Who has always been shown on American TV, though, although in the past it was relegated to the PBS ghetto along with other English TV shows like Are You Being Served or Upstairs Downstairs. It’s the younger “Whovians” that act like they invented the show, but couldn’t name a single actor who played the doctor before Christopher Eccleston!

    • alkh3myst

      You’re quite right in thinking that all Americans are incredibly stupid. How astute of you.

      • ChadCMulligan

        Complete misreading of the point I was making. (I didn’t mention the word “American”, for a start.)

  • Lisa

    I was born in the UK, but I am 100% Nigerian Yoruba. I live in the Texas and I am mistaken for Haitian, African American ( which I like ) or west indian. No one out in Texas connects the UK to men because, naturally I don’t look British.

    I am learning spanish, so I suspect many folks will mistake me for Dominican or Afro Cuban

    • John Smith

      hehe, “the Texas”

      • alkh3myst

        How well do you speak Yoruba?

  • Brian Durham

    My Estuary English has been mistaken for Cockney, Australian, South African, New Zealand, Canadian, and Welsh. After a while, it gets annoying- you’d think they’d be used to recognising Estuary English from their imported Dr. Who serials.

    • ProudYankee

      I’m an educated, worldly American and I have no idea what Estuary English is and I’ve never watched Dr. Who.

    • Tina

      Just like ‘Proud Yankee’ I’ve never heard of Estuary English. No idea what that might be. As for Doctor Who, I have never watched it and know no other Americans who have. You overstate its popularity in the US.

      • frozen01

        I’m not so sure its popularity was really overstated.

        When the fiftieth anniversary episode was simulcast in theaters, it beat the new Hunger Games movie in per-theater sales. The cinema I saw it in had five screens dedicated to it.

        My local mall has at least four separate stores selling Doctor Who merchandise right now, and not far away there is a whole convention every year that is 100% about Doctor Who (it draws big names, too).

        I work with at least 4 people who watch the show, and almost all of my friends are die-hard fans.

        Maybe in your area it’s not that popular, but in most major cities in the US, I bet you couldn’t swing a cat without hitting a Whovian.

        But yeah, I’ve never heard of Estuary English, either, nor do I know what it has to do with my favorite program.

      • LittleMissCantBeWrong

        You probably don’t know any teenagers. I personally have never watched an entire episode (I tried watching an episode once in high school, and gave up out of boredom after five minutes), but I actually do know a few people my age (37) who have been watching the show their entire lives. However, there are a lot of American teenagers who are obsessed with the show. Many of these same teens are also obsessed with Sherlock (the one with Benedict Cumberbatch, not the American version with Jonny Lee Miller). So yes, Doctor Who is way more popular in the US than you think.

    • ProudYankee

      Now you’ve got me wondering whether there’s only one estuary in England, or if anyone who lives next to any estuary speaks the same way! Don’t feel like looking up the geography, though…

  • chocoshatner

    When I was in the UK last year, I spent a few days in Cardiff (Doctor Who Experience, thankyouverymuch). When I returned back to England, everyone asked if we had a hard time understanding the Welsh. I pointed out that, to us, you don’t sound utterly dissimilar which deeply offended just about everyone. I asked if any of them could differentiate between my husband’s Jersey/Philly accent and my midwest-mixed-with-a-little-southern accent. No one even picked up a slight difference, even though most Americans could.

    If you aren’t around an accent on a regular basis, you have no way of picking one up from the other. I’m a little better than most Americans with British accents, but even I’m flummoxed at times.

    • frozen01

      I’m pretty good with British accents (for an American), but yes, the Welsh one throws me for a loop every time. It’s not that I can’t understand them, but for some reason I can’t identify it as Welsh… until someone tells me, and then it’s REALLY obvious. Like when the trailer for Constantine came out. I could tell the guy was TRYING for a Scouse accent and not really pulling it off… but I couldn’t quite put my finger on what he was closer to. That is, until I looked up the actor on IMDB.

    • BlueCanaryInTheOutlet

      Good gravy! Those two accents are totally different! How could they not notice? <–sarcasm ;)

    • alkh3myst

      The British in America are so self-important they think we’re going to sit up all night studying their accents. NOPE!

  • ProudYankee

    I’m curious what whatever would be considered a standard American accent sounds like to the British. (I guess non-Valley Californian is supposed to be the generic American accent, from what I read.) I often hear them describe the American “drawl” and I wonder exactly what they mean. Is it because you all seem to think we all sound like J.R. Ewing? (Unless we’re one of the ones who sounds like the Sopranos, of course.)

    It seems a lot of times when British describe Americans overseas, they seem to be referring to the stereotype of Texans. I wonder if that’s all they’re meeting over there, or if they’re just the ones who stand out and the other ones are invisible. When I lived in Europe a lot of people didn’t know I was American until they talked to me. Do the rest of us have a drawl to you?

    • frozen01

      The only American accent my English other half can do is stereotypical Texan. It’s hilarious. He sounds just like Jeremy Clarkson.

      • ProudYankee

        Does he think non-Southern accents have a drawl? Actually, now that I think about it, it might be “twang” that’s the word I see used most to describe American accents. And I’m not sure what they mean by that either.

        • frozen01

          Nope. Never heard him use the word “drawl” except when being sarcastic and/or talking about Texans.
          Then again, I’m from the South so maybe he’s just treading carefully? *lol*

    • LittleMissCantBeWrong

      Most Americans have a rhotic accent, which means that the r sound is always pronounced. Vowel sounds in most American accents are also standardized (for example, many Americans pronounce merry and marry like Mary). Most of the English speaking world has a non-rhotic accents, which means that the r sounds are not always pronounced. Vowel sounds are typically very specific. I think this is why a lot of people outside of North America think Americans sound like Texans, it’s those vowel sounds.

      I suspect that this is why, as a New Yorker, I can’t differentiate between southern accents. Southerners swear they all speak differently, but my northeastern brain can’t make any distinctions. All I hear is “more country” and “less country”!

  • Karen Evans

    I had an experience when in the States. I got asked if I was English. Which im not, im Australian. Also lost in translation, I asked a barista for a coffee to take away. She had no idea. It took few minutes of describing what I wanted her to do that she said. “Oh you want it to go”. Funny . Take away seems self explanatory.

  • Mimi

    I love Britain. I have a Master’s degree in British history. I plan to do some PhD research at Glasgow. *I* am pretty good at picking up different accents and differentiating between N. England, Scotland, OZ, SA, etc. However, most Americans and Canadians can’t because we are not exposed to them.

    You all can tell the difference between Welsh and Highland Sottish. If people aren’t experienced hearing them, they all sound generically “British.”

    I noticed some people putting down Americans for not understanding that there are tons of different accents/dialects. I “get” that, but it is a little offensive. America (and Canada) is a BIG country. We have states larger than the whole of Britain.

    If you were to say “southern” accent I might just ask you “southern where?” There are a bunch of different regional accents here as well and I defy anyone not exposed to them long term to be able to distinguish between Philly and Maine in a matter of moments.

    • DemonDeac

      THIS. There´s a variety in the accent of just my home state (NC) let alone Alabama vs NC vs TX, etc. I think a lot of Brits think of the South as one homogeneous region when it´s really not.

      • Mimi

        Exactly. There is no “southern” accent. There is a Texas drawl but that’s only in parts of Texas which is different from NC or Kentucky which are different from W Va.

        True story: I was doing research several years ago in Appalachia waaayyyy up in the mountains in West Virginia.

        Ok, they were speaking English, but I needed an interpreter for about a week until I got an “ear” for the dialect because it was sooo …obscure I guess is the word. Not the typical “southern” accent we hear coming out of say Nashville most of the time.

    • godsgirlnc

      I’ve been here (NC) for 9 years, and I can hear the differences in accents, but don’t necessarily relate it to a place. America does have a plethora of accents, but there is more of a blending. In the UK we have a tiny country many different accents, some only 40 miles apart geographically. The article is talking about recognising different countries accents – I’m not from Australia, NZ, or South Africa, I’m from England. I think many Brits recognise a different accent, but cannot place it geographically, most of my American friends can’t hear the difference between different accents, they just hear “British”.

      • alkh3myst

        We don’t really care, as long as we can understand you. In the US we have little or zero exposure to difference between regional accents in England. Actually, it’s a bit egotistical of UK citizens to think that we’re going to go out of our ways to sit around listening to British TV shows to try and decipher your 10,000 accents in 20 square miles. You SHOULD be glad we’re interested and polite enough to ask at all.

  • Philippa

    I’m from Devon. When I was in Florida people thought I was from New Zealand!I don’t think I sound New Zealand!

  • Ken

    Gee, you mean DownTOWN Abbey? (I kid you not, the show was recommended on the local radio station by someone who happened to have missed it for the previous four years but had no doubt how to mispronounce it.) And I heard the local radio station in upstate New York play an appalling knock-off of the Beatles by a Liverpool group that had disappeared by 1964 because it was so trivial (it was actually a song about the Beatles). You can tell where the band came from — they all had strong Scouse accents. The moronic announcer followed up with,”Did I detect a Cockney eccent in those guys?”

  • BlueCanaryInTheOutlet

    I think ALL British accents are incredibly sexy. Purr at me, boys. ;)

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  • alkh3myst

    You know, you’re right. We Americans spend years studying all the foreign accents in the English language. We’re just really bad at it. I spent 3,000 hours last week alone studying the difference between a Yorkshire and Canadian accent. This is SO important to us, what with people coming to the USA from everywhere on earth. Yeah, Congress just declared a special recess so our lawmakers could learn the difference between a Welsh and Liverpool accent.

  • Anne-Mary

    I’ve read a theory the poses that because Australian is roughly halfway between American and any form of British (closer to the southern English end of the spectrum, though), once a British person moves to the US and picks up a few American traits in his or her speech, s/he then sounds rather Australian to the untrained ear. It makes sense, although I’m not sure I’ll ever understand how someone can mistake anything for Australian except perhaps a very mild Kiwi. Then again, I can pick which part of Australia someone is from by their accent, which is apparently unusual even for Australians.
    We were at dinner with friends recently, and the father had just got back from a business trip to Birmingham (his pronunciation of the name of said city drove me insane, BTW), and related how he was asked by a (southern English) colleague at work how he found the accents and couldn’t understand the question since, according to him, said colleague also had a thick accent. My family just stared at him blankly and said, “That’s *completely* different.”
    It’s strange, though, I consider myself Australian, but here in the US, people guess “English” for my accent far more often than they guess “Australian” (unless I make several pointed comments to the effect of being Australian first). Maybe it’s because where I’m from is complex in the first place – Australian mother, English father with Scottish parents, British nationality, raised in Australia, etc, etc. Maybe it’s because an Adelaidean accent is often mistaken as an English one by Sydneysiders and Melbournians anyway. Maybe it’s because a “geeky” Australian accent is exactly the same as RP, all things considered. Who knows? At any rate, my father is telling people here that he’s Australian – he *has* lived there for over 25 years – and he’s usually met with dubious looks as he still has quite an English accent.