Six hours into the overnight flight from San Francisco to Heathrow, the cabin lights came on and the flight attendants began serving breakfast. Sitting in an aisle seat, I could hear the food choices being announced ahead of time, so when the attendant got to my row, I was ready.
“Ham and cheese muffin or egg and cheese bagel?”
“The bagel, please.”
“Right, ham it is.”
Too startled to get my bearings, weary from a sleepless night (and confounded by my own overconfidence in preparing to order), I simply took and ate the ham muffin. It was alright, but I really did want that bagel. I was perplexed at what had just happened, and yet this was only the beginning of many reminders I was about to get that I was no longer living in the perceptual landscape of California English.
Strangely, the next reminder also came at another breakfast time. For my first week in Oxford I stayed at a little B&B, waiting for permission to move into my college flat. By little, I do mean little, as I was the only guest in a house with only one host. Breakfast consisted of me dining alone at a little glass table, though the woman who ran the house would come in each morning and make sure everything was set. On my first morning there, she asked me:
“Would you like your tea now or would you like to wait and have it later?”
“I think I’ll wait a little, thank you.”
“Now, then? Alright.”
And she promptly made the tea. Twice in the space of 24 hours, I was being completely misunderstood, even (or only?) when being presented with a binary choice, with only two possible responses! What was going on? Having just got my PhD, I’d like to think that I can at least speak clearly — and not only do I study English accents for a living, but I usually end up accommodating to my interlocutor’s accent to an embarrassingly strong extent! Of course I expected dialect differences, but I don’t think I had reason to expect so much miscommunication. Okay, maybe the ham/bagel confusion could be understood — perhaps my first vowel in ‘bagel’ somehow sounds more like a Brit’s ‘ham’ vowel than their ‘bagel’ vowel — but the vowels in ‘wait’ and ‘now’ strike me as less confusable, especially for people with RP or Oxbridge accents. No, it was definitely something more than vowels. Something pragmatic? Something prosodic?
I wish I could say I figured it out, but luckily (for life) I haven’t had any more such obvious examples of miscommunication in the 2.5 weeks since then, and so unluckily (for analysis) I haven’t gotten any more datapoints for comparison!
It’s been a busy 2.5 weeks. I’ve never moved internationally before, and having just finished a 300-page dissertation, even the idea of starting a new blog amid all the chaos was enough to make me tired. That said, my acclimatization to my new British home is happening almost too rapidly, and the sociolinguistic oddities that strike me from day to day are either getting lost somewhere in the Twitterverse or else simply forgotten. And so, here I am.
Many, many people have written about the differences between British and American varieties of English. That is not the explicit purpose of this blog, though due to my profession, who I am, and where I live, that will surely be a frequent topic of discussion. For example, the title of this blog: the issue of spelling (American `z’ or British `s’, in this case) is one that immediately confronts an expat, and becomes an interesting site for identity construction. Furthermore, my post-doctoral research will focus on a particular phonetic variable, known as `L-vocalization’. This is a common feature of many British and some American varieties of English, and consists of the `vocalization’ of the /l/ sound at the ends of syllables, in other words, the pronunciation of /l/s like /w/s w-like vowels (think of sold rhyming with sewed).
[NB: As an American, I must note that I first tried for http://vocalized.wordpress.com/, but the domain was taken. *shakes fist* I therefore have to begin with a slight concession to the British spelling, though, I should say, colour be damned!!]
And the last reason for the blog’s title, not to get too obvious about it, is that a blog is just a collection of vocalizations (in the more common sense), right? So, I hope you enjoy mine. Welcome! Please come back soon.