Monday, July 8, 2013

I'm Not the One With the Accent: Simon Wood Guest Post

Today I welcome my friend author Simon Wood. A former racecar driver, licensed pilot, animal rescuer, endurance cyclist, and occasional private eye, Simon Wood is also an accomplished author with more than 150 published stories and articles under his belt. His mystery fiction, which has appeared in numerous magazines and anthologies, has earned him both the prestigious Anthony Award and a CWA Dagger Award nomination. In addition to No Show, his books include Accidents Waiting to Happen, Working Stiffs, Asking for Trouble, Paying the Piper, We All Fall Down, and Terminated. Originally from England, he lives in California with his wife, Julie. People can learn more at and you can find No Show here.


My new book, NO SHOW, deals with an Englishman coming to the US and his life being thrown into turmoil when his American wife goes missing the day he arrives in America. His search for her is hampered by his foreigner status. This is a topic I am well-informed about. I’m English, married to an American. I now live in the US. One obstacle I faced when I first moved to the US is the language.  George Bernard Shaw said, 'England and America are two countries divided by a common language.' and despite the fact we watch each other’s TV shows on a regular basis, that truism is as true today as it was then. And it’s something I learned the hard way.

American-English and English-English are very different. It’s more than the US’s predilection to drop the letter U from words like colour and to ration double L’s. Slang is different. Sentence structure is different. Pronunciation is different for the same words. The English accent, despite everything, is still relatively unfamiliar to the American ear. All these things made life difficult for me as an immigrant in the US.

I must admit I had a hard time adjusting when I moved to the US.  I would ask for something in a store, and watch the person nod, but see they didn’t have a clue what I was saying.  I remember being asked to write down what I wanted in a Starbucks after saying “Coffee, coffee, coffee” in a number of different ways. After handing the note over, the barista said, “Oh, you mean, coffee.” It was quite a humiliating experience. For about six months, I used hand gestures instead of words to get what I wanted, which seemed to get me further with fewer incidents.

This was a pretty sorry state of affairs. It wasn’t like English was my second language, but it was proving that American was. In a state of frustration, I complained to my wife. “What is wrong with everybody? I’m not speaking a different language.”

“Well, you kind of are,” she said tactfully. “You do have an accent.”

“A what? An accent? I don’t have a bloody accent. You people have the accent.”

“Yes, I know, but you have to appreciate the differences.”

“What differences?”

“You are a low talker. All English people are. You speak on a low and level tone. We don’t.”

You mean Americans are loud, I thought unkindly, but I accepted the point. I looked at the way I spoke and listened to Americans in conversation. I changed my lexicon so at least the words I used were the same ones everyone else used. I also changed the way I spoke. I didn’t affect an American accent, but I did speak up a tad and develop a Hugh Granty kind of an accent which was a little more formal than the way I spoke, because Americans seemed to understand him.

Fifteen years later, I speak fluent American, although I still speak it with an accent. My accent is now a little mellower on the American ear. I can laugh (most of the time) about my past problems, and I can even see where you lovely Americans are coming from and where my people go wrong when they visit the US. A little while ago I was having lunch with another ex-pat friend of mine, and we saw an English family having a hard time getting their order over to the waitress. My friend and I smiled.

“Fresh off the boat,” I remarked.

My friend nodded, and we offered our assistance.

This isn't the first time I’ve offered my translation services to English newbies. It’s almost like the scene from AIRPLANE where the old woman proclaims that she speaks Jive.

So now I’m very comfortable when speaking around Americans. Now I just wish they wouldn’t confuse me with an Australian nine times out of ten.


Elizabeth A. White said...

Great post. Americans are, mostly, used to hearing "posh" English accents, and when confronted with the English version of a (US) Southern or Boston accent--Midlands or Geordie for example--the effect can be startling to someone expecting Masterpiece Theater. And let's not even talk about some of those heavy Scottish accents; the ones even other Scots don't understand. I, however, love hearing them all. :-)

Simon Wood said...

Yes, Masterpiece theatre has a lot to do with problems I faced...and hey, are you saying I'm not posh. :-(

Terry Shames said...

Simon, I could almost hear you talking while I read this! When I lived in Italy, and tried really hard to learn Italian well enough to converse, I would be so frustrated when I would say something exactly right and have the person look at me like I was from Mars--and then they'd repeat it back to me exactly the way I said it as if they were correcting me. Funny how after I lived there for a while that didn't happen anymore. Must have been them, not me, right?

Jim Guigli said...

Right Simon, I do sympathise. Having struggled in Japanese, Italian, and Russian, I have no illusions regarding my linguistic talents. (Or my accent. When I moved here from the Chicago area, native Californians told me I had a heavy accent.)
But 'splain me, Simon. Why does the Earl of Spencer say "Dianer," the way Jack Kennedy would "say Cuber?"

Jim Guigli

Jenny Carless said...

Fun post, Simon.
Travel in the reverse direction can be a challenge, too. When I lived in the UK, I felt so proud when I could finally understand the Geordie accents in "Auf Wiedersehen, Pet." (Yes, that dates me.) And then of course there's Cockney rhyming slang...

J F Norris said...

I enjoyed this post. I have never had a problem understanding any accents whether they be the variety of English accents, French, German, Spanish, Japanese, Chinese, Indian or what have you. The problem is listening. It always has been. Most people who can't be bothered to listen. I think there's a lot of prejudice revealed in people who claim accents and regionalisms are difficult to understand. Just another way to exclude the "outsider."

I've met plenty of loud English people in my day. That "low and even tone" stereotype is BS. Just as the Loud American is a stereotype. Shouting at a person when he is right in front of you is not purely an American trait -- it is the trait of insensitive boors and the self-important. And they come in all nationalities.

Simon Wood said...

Terry: It's always you. :-)
Jenny: Geordie is an acquired taste.
Jim: Her name is Di-ann-er. Simple.

Elizabeth A. White said...

Hey, too often posh=tosser, so not being posh ain't necessarily a bad thing. ;-)

Simon Wood said...

Non-tosser status. Yay me!!

Simon Wood said...

This Geico ad illustrates the language problems we have in our house: