“DON’T expect it to be like the books, Mary Sue,” I (and everyone who knows me) told myself. “Or the movies, or the TV shows.”
After all, I’ve only really caught up to the 1930s and 40s. Doubtless I could carry on lovely conversations with hundred-year-old women with independent streaks a mile, but I didn’t think I’d be meeting a lot of those.
Well, I was wrong. Not about the hundred-year-old women, I mean, but about England being like the books and movies.
Guys, it totally is!
Languages and Accents and Vocabulary
Of course, it’s the language that first caught my attention. I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of being surrounded by British accents and hearing all these words I thought only existed in the books. It’s brilliant. All these words and phrases I picked up from British literature – that I wouldn’t dare use in the States because I’d sound absurd – are commonplace here (still!). I’m getting awfully good at maintaining a poker face when hearing a phrase I thought only existed in the Lord Peter books or Agatha Christie or Dickens or Austen. I’ve heard everything from sozzled to pinched to meself, mollycoddle and cosset and Crikey and Blimey! There’s a little part of me still holding out hope to hear the “sound of a good, solid, absolutely British ‘Damn!’” Nothing yet, but I’ll keep you updated. I think it might be too old-fashioned.
It’s funny to hear my American accent clunking and thudding among all these lilting British inflections. I think we move our cheeks around a lot more when we speak, which is why it sounds clunky.
Slight tangent, but hugely funny: I got a bit of an insight into what I must sound like the first time I volunteered at a homeless shelter with the rest of church. I was watching Emma play dominoes with another volunteer and a Polish homeless guy (I think his name is Slav?). He’s got barely any English, and what he does have is thickly accented. Swearing, of course, is no object – so when he lost, he said—actually, not said, more like declared, “Awww, ****.”
It fell like a brick. Like he literally stood up on the table and dropped a big red brick – I saw it in gorgeous detail in my mind’s eye, and nobody batted an eyelash, which made me laugh all the harder. I did my best to hide my laughter behind an imaginary throat-clearing and experienced a sudden rush of gleeful understanding when everybody’s eyes twinkle when I say something American.
Like when I say the word “herb.” They pronounce the ‘h,’ so the word sounds like “hehrb.” Of course, I pronounce it “ERRB,” and everyone peals with laughter. Finally they explained why. Apparently there’s an accent – I think it’s Yorkshire? – that pronounces it something like that. “It sounds like – just for that one word – you suddenly picked up a completely different accent!”
My accent is a dead giveaway that I’m not from here, but for the most part nobody’s had any problems understanding me. Except for immigrants and children. I subbed a couple classes for an ESOL teacher who was out of town for a couple weeks and had one boisterous Pakistani man with an accent thick as curry correct my pronunciation of “can’t” while I was reading something from our book.
“Can’t? What, can’t?” The look of consternation on his face as he slowly craned up his head at me from his book is forever imprinted on my memory. “KAAAHHNNNT.”
Cue flashbacks to Singin’ in the Rain: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q3OkXi5osfU.
Another funny story from class, courtesy of Melik: we were doing some exercises that had them complete the sentence. I wrote on the board, “I look forward to…”
Melik finished, in all seriousness: “when the queen of my dreams will come.”
A female student retorted, “She’s already at home!”
My accent also deeply amused the kids at the primary school I volunteer at on Tuesdays. 70% of the children at the school are Pakistani (Derby is a beautifully diverse city; the main street in town is one ethnic shop after another). My first day, I was confused as to why the kids kept talking to me about China. One after another, they’d come to me and point out everything with the color red in it and tell me the Chinese think it’s lucky.
Later, when the teacher introduced me, I understood why. “Miss Mary’s not from here, my ducks,” she said.
“Pakistan!” interjected one.
“Err, no, not from Pakistan—”
“No, Miss Mary is from America, which is almost as far away as China.” She looked up at me and explained, “Most of the kids come from Pakistan, and we learned about China, and that’s the extent of their geography!”
So the reason I was told about China, then, is because I’m obviously not British – not sounding like I do!
For the record, avoid using the word “pants” when in England. Here, it means “underwear.”
I knew this. I did.
Enough said about that one. At least it made the girls laugh.
(When I was little, I never ever wore pants…)
(Or shoes with laces. Because those were boy clothes, and I wouldn’t be caught dead in those. Obviously.)
And they really do talk about the weather! I nearly died when someone greeted me with “Miserable weather, innit?” Strangers call everybody darling, and love, and sweetheart. And there are the regional slang words and phrases to pick up, too. They rarely say, “Hi, how are you,” as a greeting. It’s, “are you all right,” only with the accent it gets all smushed together. “ayouawright?” You should hear them when they really get cracking, too. One darling old man, John, who comes to church every now and again has a thick Derbyshire accent. It took two or three conversations with him before I could understand more than one word in three, he talks so fast and with such an accent. I don’t think I’ve focused that hard on anyone since I graduated school!
I’m sure there’s lots more to come on settling into British English. Next blog entry (which is halfway drafted) will be on the church community here.