Last month, a graphic representation of differences in dialect across the continental USA compiled by North Carolina State University graduate student Joshua Katz went viral.
I pored over every single graph, quizzing my parents (born in Philadelphia and New York) on their pronunciations of “coupon” and “pecan,” and priding myself on my apparently distinctly New Jersey way of saying “marry,” “Mary,” and “merry” (I pronounce them all differently, like they are three different words, which they are).
Then I headed off to commence eight weeks of summer research at Cambridge University in England. Thus far, I’ve actually interacted with more inanimate manuscripts than with actual Brits. Why, then, after only a week here, do I have such a strong impulse to sign every single one of my emails with a very cute, very British “xx”? Why do I find myself unconsciously imitating the Oxbridge lilt, ending my conversations with “cheers!” and using the word “rather” much more than I have ever used it before?
I’m not the only American struggling with the oddly compulsive pull of the upper-class English accent and language. I’ve already met a number of Americans here who will, consciously or unconsciously, exclaim things like, “Oh, just look at that bah-thtub! Isn’t it dah-ling?” while continuing the rest of their conversation in a perfectly normal American accent. To be honest, it sounds ridiculous. But according to an article in the Guardian, Americans who adopt British accents after spending time overseas are in good company: Madonna, Andrew Solomon, and others have all famously come back to the US (“the States”) with a hint of a British accent. Some linguists and laypeople have speculated that it’s because Americans have come to associate the upper-class English of the Oxford and Cambridge educated social elite with wealth, sophistication, authority, and a bit of well-deserved snobbery, and want to emulate the mode of speech they admire so much. Perhaps I, too, have been trained to respect and envy British English.
But I refuse to become just another one of those Americans who adopts (probably poorly) aspects of the Oxbridge accent. Whether I’m resisting socialization, deep-seated envy, or just the infectious nature of this accent, I don’t think I want it to be mine. Sure, I’ll call my fries “chips” for the next seven weeks, but only for the sake of effective communication. I’d rather be proud of the way I’ve always said “marry” than attempt to sound like a mockery of an upper-class British person. So if I come back sounding like a bad actor in a middle-school Shakespeare play, please feel free to call me out. And until next week, cheers!
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