on becoming intelligible

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.


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12 Responses to on becoming intelligible

  1. Abby Walker says:

    I find the exact same thing here, Lauren, and I *think* what’s going on is that with those sort of common, repeated interactional phrases, people are really just listening out for the barest of clues to get to the one of two choices, and not actually parsing what’s being said. And if you have an accent, those barest cues do not align.

    My most common misunderstandings happen when I’m asked if I’m eating here or taking out (or something like that), and I say “take away” and they think I said eat in?

  2. Michele says:

    When I was an American living in England almost 40 years ago, what startled me most was that British people did not say “You’re welcome” after “Thank you.” Whenever I said it, I got the most quizzical looks, yet saying nothing seemed so…unfinished. Don’t know if things have changed over time, but would be interested to learn.

  3. Lawrence Shirley says:

    Thanks. Those were interesting observations. I quickly learned British spellings and pronunciations when I first went to West Africa–even in my own field of “maths” where z is zed, zero is nought, exponents are indices, etc. Then the reversal happened: after 18 years in West Africa, it seemed normal to end “-or” words in “-our” and to use British car terms–my family still teases me for using “boot” for “trunk” , and I still pronounce the term for high school as “secondry” It doesn’t end: my mother spent about 18 months in England in the WACs over 60 years ago and she says she still feels comfortable with British terms–she enjoys the British comedies on public television, but says her friends say they can’t understand the language.

  4. Dominic Yu says:

    ooooh, i know i know!

    “bagel please” -> “ham and cheese”.

    “I think I’ll wait a little, thank you.” -> “mmfhmwmhhrgl, thank you.”, which can only be interpreted as presupposition that the tea will come right away.

    how’s that?

  5. moon9 says:

    Yay! It’s nice to see you blogging, L!

    Yeah, I agree with Abby in that it might be more about pragmatics than phonetics (although in many cases, phonetics certainly play roles, and I’d actually like it more when phonetics play major roles in miscommunications!). As a non-native English speaker, I occasionally notice that whenever I say something that is not intelligible to them, they just get what they “expect” to get.

    It’s kinda like the reason why “do you mind…” question normally don’t cause any problems although many people (including foreigners) mix up with yes/no; since speakers almost always expect “no” for “do you mind…” they don’t really need to pay attention to the actual answers!

    In your case, of course, it is a little more puzzling because it’s not like they would expect to hear one answer over the other… However, I do think that asking to repeat is a pretty huge FTA (especially when the speaker has some foreign/non-native accents), so some people don’t like asking to repeat and just do what they would like to do when confused…

    Looking forward to seeing your next blog post! I (like others) am so fascinated by your UK experience… 😀

  6. steph says:

    Welcome back to the blogosphere! 🙂

    I had similar experiences when I was in England of being completely misunderstood, but unfortunately I can’t remember any specific examples so have no points of comparison for you. It was definitely a bit shocking, though, that my English could not be understood.

  7. Trochee says:

    fascinating. I am very much looking forward to reading you thoughts on transatlanticisms and other quirks of expatriation.

  8. Qwen says:

    Yay! I’m glad to be able to learn a little about your English experiences (and perhaps a bit about linguistics while I’m at it?). I hope your enjoy your new blog!

  9. Dad says:

    I thought of that, too (Abby’s comment), but … just what part of “bagel” did the flight attendant not understand???

  10. Stacy says:

    I was just wondering if you were blogging anyplace these days–welcome back! I’ve included the link to my new linguisticky-dissertationy blog, but don’t look for any content anytime too soon 😛

    To Abby–“take away” is certainly not an expected response in Ohio. My native binary is “here” or “to-go,” so I’m not sure what they heard–maybe “stay”? FWIW, I had the reverse problem when placing food orders in NZ.

    And to Lawrence–I’ve *always* called the back storage compartment on the car “the boot” until chastised for being “pretentious” by friends at college. I would write it off as one of those “conservative” Appalachian features, but cars (and their boots) came along after we were long separated from the Brits. Curious…

  11. Abby Walker says:

    I also say “Have here” instead of “For here” and that’s often confused for “take out”. BUT THEY BOTH HAVE “HERE” IN THEM!?!?!!

    Hmm, sounds like we should do a cool perception experiment on phatic communions and foreign accents…

  12. canadiancat says:

    Who knew a flight from SF to LHR could create crossed wires for the flight crew.

    My very first exposure to the oddity of UK English/Phrases of expression is the commonly-heard, on the street remark “You alright [?]”

    I only put the question mark in square brackets because most of the time the phrase isn’t directed to the receiver as a question, merely a statement of “I’m acknowledging your presence, now move along…”

    I would get the most confused looks when I answered: “I’m alright/fine/good/well, thanks”.

    Throughly entertaining tho, messing with people is always fun in a way!

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