Lost in Translation
On Clinging To The Queen's English
One of the chief joys and struggles of being English in California is the gradual retreat into a grotesque caricature of Britishness, and there is no area where this is more of a challenge then your accent & vocabulary.
After a few months of living in LA, I resolved that I would do well to pick up and absorb the famous American optimism, the can-do attitude, the friendliness, the sense of possibility and willingness to embrace reinvention, but that my point of no return in abandoning my sense of identity would be my accent.
Having grown up outside the UK for large parts of my adolescence, I learnt early on that there are two types of people in this world: the sort who move to a new area or place and instantly acquire whatever linguistic tics, accent or local vocabulary will allow them to fit in, and the people that dig in and cling to their way of speaking to avoid admitting the fact that their time somewhere is changing them.
I am part of the latter group.
Like a lot of British citizens, I’m not really a person at all, just a linguistic & syntactic processing machine finely-calibrated to pick up on what someone’s accent reveals about where they come from, what sort of school they went to, and who they are — I hate this, but it’s been programmed into me by twenty-nine years of living in a country where classism is a nasty national habit that refuses to die, and I can’t turn it off.
When I first moved here, the welcome fact that class doesn’t really exist on the West Coast meant that I had to turn the Great English Accent-Identifier in other directions, and in most cases this finely-tuned piece of weaponry has been pointed inwards at myself.
Soon, I found myself living in fear of acquiring that most dreadful of mutations, the Mid-Atlantic accent: the strange in-between not-quite-placeable twang of people who, deliberately or accidentally, sound like they are neither English or American, but somehow have the worst of both worlds. Surrendering your British accent for a Mid-Atlantic one also forfeits the entirely undeserved 20–30 additional perceived IQ points that a good English accent wins you in most personal and professional conversations in the USA.
This quest to hold onto my original way of talking means that I have gone from a vaguely South-Eastern middle-class English accent of the sort typical of people with no strong regional ties to anywhere in the UK, to sounding like a character from a Charles Dickens novel or The Canterbury Tales.
I feel a great sense of nostalgia for the rich and varied high-and-low slang of the UK, and use it despite the fact that a lot of the time I might as well be speaking Greek: in the space of five minutes, I once had to explain to an American colleague and friend what poppers, a lamb doner, ‘fit’ and a ‘lob-on’ meant. Entire sentences I speak are sometimes treated by American friends and colleagues like quaint sonic museum exhibits from a bygone era.
I enjoy the usage of various magic American colloquial phrases (‘not my first time at the rodeo’, ‘the struggle is real’, ‘I got you’, ‘my bad’), but find that certain elements of English conversation just don’t translate — I have lost count of the number of times I’ve been told I don’t have to be sorry when I employ the word with the scattershot carelessness with which English people apologise, and using the phrase ‘is there any danger of….” generally triggers a confused response about how there is zero imminent threat in a way that suggests that I should probably just stop bothering.
I have contemplated mirroring the ubiquity of American sporting terminology in modern US corporate life (‘thrown a curve ball’, ‘a home run’, ‘getting the ball into the endzone’, ‘a fumble’, ‘full-court press’) by trading them for their obscure English sporting equivalents (‘bowled you a googly’, ‘knocked it out of the park’, ‘get the ball over the tryline, ‘dropped the catch’, etc).
I refuse to pick up the drastically limited vocabulary of the Californian surfer of well-established cliché (dude, bro, awesome, gnarly, intense, sick etc) which still dominates conversations on the West Coast even with people who’ve never been surfing in their life.
I avoid at all costs using the word awesome (a sort of American omni-tool or Swiss army pen-knife that is gradually absorbing all other words) in favour of its endangered and more expressive alternatives: marvellous, splendid, terrific, fantastic, lovely, brilliant, wonderful, incredible, amazing.
I have spent the best part of two years battling with the spellcheck on my computer (set to American English) to make sure that there is a ‘u’ in behaviour, honour and colour, but am still losing sight of when is the appropriate time to use an ‘s’ instead of a ‘z’ in words like personalise.
I will die on the barricades and painstakingly spell the word water one letter at a time rather than pronounce it “waaaader” to make myself understood in restaurants and bars; I refuse to call full-stops ‘periods’, I will not succumb to calling football “soccer” or pavements “sidewalks”; I will fight tooth and nail to avoid speaking in that like, bizarre, rising Valley-Girl intonation where everything sounds like a question?
I am, in short, a total dick, but I am an English dick, stranded on a linguistic island of my own making with a resident population of precisely one, and this is getting worse the longer I spend away from home.
When I return to England firing off British idioms and colloquial slang, I’ll no doubt discover that during my exile I have become totally incomprehensible to my countrymen as well.
The struggle is, truly, real.