Buses & Brits

In Florence, London, The Art of Travel Spring 2015, Strangers by Kathryn Jones1 Comment

I was confused as I tried to decode the London bus map. All I wanted was to visit Arsenal soccer stadium. The stops on the map did not match the ones Google Maps provided. I saw a girl with orangey-blonde hair and huge, red earphones and crossed legs sitting on the thin red bus bench with no cares in the world. I frantically interuppted her music. It was frustrating. I repeated my question too many times to count. “Is this the right side for so-and-so stop or it the other side of the road?” I slowed down my speech. I annunciated. London was my first and only place of visit where English was the official language and surprisingly where I had the biggest language barrier. I spoke her language, but my accent confused her.

I thought, “WHAT DO YOU MEAN YOU DON’T UNDERSTAND ME? YOU’RE THE ONE WHO HAS THE FUNNY ACCENT!!!!” I decided to just check the other side’s bus stop. My hand followed the line on the map enough to realize that the direction I wanted to go in required me back on the original side. I crossed the street back through the dark, creepy underpass with murky puddles and an abandoned blue mattress. I passed her and stood towards the bus sign. She gave me such a look. I have never felt like such an alien.

What does an American accent sound like? I know it exists. When my Italian class met up with local Italian high schoolers for bilingual conversations, one girl said she loved the American accent and said we sounded so cool. Um, thank you? Though, I feel like the American accent is like the Boogeyman – I know it exists, and I curl up in bed at night worrying about it, but it has yet to reveal itself to me.

The whole world is middle school, and America is the late bloomer waiting for puberty. When will I know what my accents is, Mommy? Everybody else does already. Everybody like the Frenchman I asked for directions in Paris. I spoke to him in my regular, adorable, somewhat-Snooki-like New Jersey accent. Nada – I mean, de rien! I spoke to him again, this time in English with a French accent – my own experiement. It worked. He understood. As self-conscious as I was, hoping he did not think I was making fun of him, me speaking with his accent made my foreign words comprehensible.

Overconfident, I tried again in Nice, France. I failed. The actual inhabitants in Nice have their own local dialect which proved too tricky for me to imitate. A local couple asked if I spoke Dutch. I bet if I spoke Dutch in a Nice accent, I would have succeeded. I walked away in frustration. I was again the outsider with no way of fitting in – poo, puberty.

The United States consists of a range of dialects and accents, but outside of the Western world, we possess one similar accent. It marks us. I doubt in my four months abroad I will realize what it is. I was born around it, just as my fifty-something father who is the only one not having realized my grandmother’s heavy Haitian accent yet. So I continue my dramatic readings of Elle magazine horoscopes in various accents to my roommates, never hearing, “Nice American accent!” between, “Are you a Australian leprechaun?” and “Yes, she’s speaking normally again!”

Comments

  1. Hi Kathryn!

    I study voice work, so I might be able to clear up what it is about the American accent(s) that foreigners find so fascinating.

    On the most basic level, the American accent is known for being very rhotic in nature, meaning that we pronounce more ‘r’s than other accents. For an example, compare how we say ‘butter’ with how the Brits say ‘butta’. I’ve made a lot of English friends at my workplace here in London and, whenever any of them try to mimic an American accent, the first thing they do is start over-pronouncing their ‘r’s. That, and front all their vowels like a valley girl.

    Basically, what it all comes down to is stereotypes. Most Brits are only familiar with the kinds of Americans they see on TV and film: the ditzy California valley girl, the loud Bostonian, the gruff New Yorker, the dumb Southerner, etc., so any time they meet someone with what they would consider to be an atypical accent (like mine), they immediately become transfixed. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been talking to one of my friends the Tube and a (probably drunk) Brit has approached me to ‘compliment’ me on my accent. At the theatre where I work, the actors have never met a South Philadelphian before and each day, before the show, they practice how to say ‘wooder’ like I do.

    It’s funny to consider your own accent to be ‘foreign’, but, to others, it is. And it’s pretty surreal to hear someone attempt to imitate your speech sounds; it makes you more aware of what makes your accent unique and, psychologically, what attitudes people have towards your way of talking.

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