Some readers probably think that I have a tendency to exaggerate the language issues involved in communications I have with Americans. But any Brit living in the US will be able to provide a long list of such examples. So will Australians, for that matter.
Which is perhaps not surprising, since most Americans seem unable to tell the difference between British and Australian accents. At a bar last night, for example, one man was trying to work out where I am from. He considered the matter for some time, and decided that English is spoken in New Zealand, Australia, and the UK. He then ruled out my being from New Zealand. But then he ruled out my being from the UK too!
Perhaps the most extreme example of a time when I’ve been left quite incredulous was when we were moving to a new house in Tampa. The two men from the removal company had just stopped for a drink when one of them prompted the following exchange:
Him: “You’re not from round here, are you?”
Me: “No, I’m from England.”
Him: “Oh! What language do they speak in England?”
His colleague, who was Russian, got very embarrassed and muttered something under his breath. When the first chap was out of hearing, he even felt the need to apologize.
Nia warned me that the people in Maine have a very different accent from any other she’s heard while in the US. So I have been trying to be prepared for unusual words or vowel sounds. But it turns out that, while I seem to understand Mainers without undue difficulty, they don’t necessarily understand me.
I went to the local supermarket today and couldn’t locate the butter. So I asked an assistant. He was pleased to help, but led me towards an aisle in the middle of the store. It seemed an unlikely destination since, in my experience, chiller cabinets are generally to be found closer to a store’s perimeter. I wondered what he was going to show me. When we arrived, he smiled and pointed to pasta.
“Ah”, I exclaimed. “Pasta! I was actually looking for butter!” He replied: “Oh, that’s back where we were!” As we retraced our steps, he added: “I had someone else in here last week. He was looking for paper. Only it wasn’t paper he was looking for…. It was peppers.”
When I got back, I started to spread some of the aforementioned butter on a baguette. I realized that I couldn’t remember ever having experienced such a problem while asking for a baguette or, indeed, with anything involving a foreign word. Croissant, for example, never causes a problem.
No, on second thoughts, strike that. No American seems to have heard of an aubergine even when the thing is staring them in the face.
Of course, this problem isn’t confined to the United States. The Two Ronnies famously highlighted the issue many years ago.
But I think The Proclaimers might have the answer. You know their song, I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles)? Well, I bet you don’t sing along to that in your native voice. It’s a recognized fact that it’s impossible to sing along to it without lapsing into some sort of Scottish accent.
So I think Elaine should branch out into a sideline. When she’s preparing to welcome a traveler to a new state, she should also prime them with some accent training: “Get in the middle lane and repeat after me!”
Oh, yes, she’d love that. It would also give her something to do during the boring bits when she’s just announced that you should keep on this road for the next 75 miles.
While she’s getting that all sorted out, though, can anyone teach me how to pronounce “peppers” in a Maine accent?