For all of the three and a bit years I lived in London, all people could hear was my American accent. They picked up on it in an instant, and gave me slightly accusatory looks – or as accusatory as the British can get, in their aren’t-we-all-lovely-even-if-you-sound-American-let’s-have-a-cuppa-anyway manner. I gave my usual excuses – I had been brought up on American TV, and I did have a Peace Corps volunteer as a teacher in school at some point… my sheepish mumblings were accepted and the topic was never mentioned again, but I still felt as if my voice had committed a faux-pas to be frowned on. A bit like Mr. Darcy refusing to dance with Lizzie Bennet – it was all swept under a rug of smiles on the surface, but we all knew something was irretrievably wrong.
By contrast, almost since the first moment I set foot in New York, everyone – and I do mean everyone – has been asking me whether I’m British. Or commenting on the loveliness of my accent. Shop assistants, waiters, people at parties and social events, I swear even the ubiquitous rats perk up their ears and twitch their whiskers in appreciation. It’s incredibly flattering – and while I don’t think that I sound particularly British, I guess I do tend to go “aah” instead of “ehh” and throw in a flowery non-American phrase now and then – because… well, that’s how I speak.
I have yet to see any real effects of the British Accent™ here in the US, but I do suspect that its power might be real. I am also afraid that there are some out there who wouldn’t shy away from misusing that power for …(gasp)… their own wicked purposes! You snicker, beloved reader – but mind my words, they are among us. They are sneaky. And they are putting on outrageous accents!
I already have a suspect on my list, you see. It’s someone from my residence hall. As I was picking up a parcel (“you mean package?” ” no, I mean parcel”) from the mail room downstairs the other day, I heard this bloke behind me chatting with the girl at the desk. “Oh yesh, I live on the elevunth floor, my deaaaarh” he trumpeted, laying it on as thickly as vocally possible. “Would you sign here?” the innocent gal inquired. “I would love to!” came the enthusiastic reply. Love to? LOVE to? it’s a pen, you move along on paper, to scribble something as proof you picked up your stuff. What’s there to love? Unless a pen-fetish is involved (not judging here, really, if you’re in a serious relation with a pen, please move along, this is not addressed to you).
I cringed at this guy’s flamboyance, put it down as some lame effort to flirt, and went out. Ten seconds later, as I was waiting for the lift, guess who sidled up to me. You’ve got it. Out of the corner of my eye I noticed that a) he was carrying a rather big box and b) he wasn’t ugly enough to need an accent; actually, he wasn’t bad looking at all. “Hmmm” he goes; and then sighs loudly. And then: “I really don’t want to wait for this elevator.” Oh really? don’t you just love waiting for it? goes the evil part of my brain. “Well, you could always take the stairs” I suggest snarkily. “I could … to the 11th floor?” I nod slightly, in a do-as-you-please-and-stop-bothering-me way. “With THIS box?” Oh for heaven’s sake. He obviously wants me to commiserate. “So what’s in the box? Is it a lamp?” I ask casually. “No, it’s an electric guitar” he proclaims, filled with pride. Hmm. There it goes. “Oh, do you play?” I continue, as non-committally as possible. “Yes” he beams with all his might. I am supposed to be impressed, I can tell. I stay as quiet as a church mouse.
“Say, where are you from?” is his next question. “Because I overheard you in the mail room… and I was wondering.” “I’m kind of… from all over Europe.” “But exactly?” he persists. “Born and raised in Romania, lived for many years in Germany, spent some time in the UK…” “Ah, I thought I heard some Eastern European accent!” Oh please. I highly doubt it. My accent sounds nothing like a Eastern European one. “And some British.” I shrug. “I’m half British myself. Born and raised in London.” Oh really. I nod, and say that I thought as much. Even with the obvious pains he was going through in order to hide it. No, I didn’t say that last bit. He looks crestfallen. How can anyone fail to swoon at his musical skills or his heritage? I can feel a palpable quivering of discontentment on my right but I look pointedly ahead and ignore it.
Because …what I would absolutely love is for accents to be enjoyed, appreciated, revelled in – and left completely agenda-free.