“So, do you sound British yet?”

Everyone’s favorite joke when I went home for Christmas was to ask me if I was picking up a British accent, “yet.”  It’s a weird joke to me, because it operates on the assumption that acquiring a non-native accent is even possible in adulthood, when the idea behind this assumption is actually one of those big, unanswered, empirical questions in sociolinguistics.  It’s really complicated, involving matters of personal identity and language attitudes of the listeners as well as psychological constraints and all the rest — basically anything that matters about linguistic production that you can think of.  The question/joke also operates under the assumption that there’s one target accent, this so-called “British accent,” which anyone who knows about English in England knows is a fallacy to an even greater extent than the fallacy of there being one “American accent.”  By “greater extent” what I mean is that the range of linguistic variation is greater from town to town, person to person, and so mutual intelligibility between any two given Brits is relatively lower than between two given Americans.  This is not news.  (What’s more is how rarely people actually identify as “British” — I’m not going to get into that quagmire, here!)

English flags on the English/Scottish border

Oxford is, as others have already pointed out in comments on this blog, just about the worst place to acquire something like a “British accent,” even if I could, and even if such a thing existed.  The town is not exactly quaint Oxfordshire.  There are of course a lot of “townies” and other locals around, but because of where I live (in college) and my job (with the university) I spend most of my time talking with international students/scholars and “British” folk who are from various parts of the UK, none of them Oxfordshire.  So I end up at dinners with a table full of people from different parts of southern England (not even northern England, which is more linguistically distinct, and not even to mention Scotland or Ireland), and debates will ensue between them about the most common term for this or that.  None of this would exactly help with my so-called acquisition of so-called British English.

"British English" is not the only thing in Oxford

That said, there’s a reason I’m writing this blog post…

I wrote a few months ago about the accent of the voice that we hear in our heads.  People who read and commented on that post or to me, about the post, focused more on the whilst/while alternation than on the questions I was most interested in — the sound or grammar of the voice that we hear either when we’re reading silently to ourselves, as I was doing with my student papers in that blogpost, or when we’re `talking’ silently to ourselves.  It’s this latter one that caught me off-guard this morning.  I should start by saying that this wasn’t anything to do with accent.  At least, not in terms of segmental variation, but it could be that my `inner voice’ did have a bit of British intonation (obviously this kind of thing is really hard to test…!)  Anyway, some background: about a month ago I was walking around downtown Oxford when I realized that my mobile/cell phone was missing.  I don’t know if I’d dropped it or if it’d been stolen.  After much wrangling and various visits to the store and various phone calls to the phone company, I got a replacement phone, for free, just like my old one, and with the same number, but of course with none of the information in it, like people’s phone numbers, etc.  I’ve had this phone about a week now, at the most, during which I’ve finally reentered these numbers and other information.  So I get to work this morning and I reach into my pocket and it’s not there (because it was in my purse) and I say to myself:

Damn, don’t tell me my phone’s been nicked again!

What’s weird about this is that not only have I never in my life used the word nicked, either through verbal articulation or writing, I also haven’t been around too many people who’ve had the chance to use it, at least not that I’m aware of.  In other words, I don’t remember anyone I know talking to me about having something nicked.  One of my friends here had her purse stolen at a restaurant, but she’s American — the purse was quite definitely stolen, not nicked! Sure, it’s one of those Britishims that Americans know and use to stereotype Brits, but it’s one thing to know what Those Other People do, and quite another thing to curse at oneself in one’s own head, using a kind of mixed linguistic style.  So, no, my dear friends-and-family-back-home, I’m not acquiring a “British accent,” but I am acquiring something.  As a sociolinguist, I feel like I should have a much better model of what this something is.

But most of the time, it just takes me by surprise.

Funny signs can also take one by surprise...

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8 Responses to “So, do you sound British yet?”

  1. I despise the Leicester accent. I have worked tirelessly for ten years to make sure I don’t develop it. Now, I just sound posh.

  2. Doug says:

    Yes! Where the heck do these little ‘foreign phrases’ come from? I don’t acquire them (not in the traditional sense), I don’t pick them up from people around me, I don’t even actively recall picking any of them up from media… they just suddenly *pop in* one day… me asking the Significant Other to pick up “two tins of frijoles negros” or asking if he wants me to grab some “take aways” on the way home. Tins? Take aways? In Texas? WTF?

  3. I guess it is easier in my case when I am dealing with Spanish, although I would wonder if my speaking Spanish on a daily basis has some impact on my English accent.

    Not being a trained sociolinguist, I don’t have as much experience with this. I do know that, with Spanish being my second language, my accent and localized slang changes based upon where I am, significantly. The Dominican Republic and Guatemala have very different accents and slang, and within a week I slip into the local dialect.

    Are there any studies on that?

  4. Anna says:

    I started saying “take a decision” sometime in Nepal in the last couple years, but of course it sounds like I picked it up in the UK. English here is a mix of things that seem associated with UK speech (mobile, take a decision), American speech (pants are what you wear on the outside, not on the inside), and some things that are definitely Nepali English (due to different ideas about plurals in Nepali, pants are actually just “pant”). Let’s see what I come back saying this time.

  5. May says:

    The other day I was talking to a friend of mine (also non-native speaker of English), and I used the phrase “mull over” something, which is not a phrase I can remember having actively used in the past, and as soon as it had come out of my mouth, I mentally associated it with another (British guy) who I probably picked it up from. Then, on the same day, in a different conversation with the same friend, it was my friend’s turn to use the phrase “mull over”, which I’m pretty sure wasn’t part of her active vocabulary before either, and she was probably not trying to mimic me consciously. Perhaps new words and ideas are assimilated in a kind of subconscious way through exposure, while we focus more of our attention to the actual meaning of speech. But I guess these ‘Britishisms’ would be way easier to pick up than their intonation, for instance, or lack of rhoticity or glottalisation (in some areas).

    Would be interesting to see whether you’d ever ‘mentally’ use the word “nick” again when you’re back in the US. But then, now you’re too conscious about it, so it would be hard to undergo this experiment. 😉

  6. erica says:

    fascinating…i have no sociolinguistic insights at all, but i’ve definitely noticed my own somewhat different “mental” vocabulary/dialect shifts depending on my surroundings. i have this kind of absurd tendency to mentally switch into spanish, the only language other than english in which i have some proficiency, whenever i’m surrounded by non-english speakers, spanish speaking or not, which is, as you might imagine, fairly useless most of the time and leads to more confusion. my other strange tendency, and i wish i could think of a concrete example right now, relates to american slang that i associate with mostly urban people who are far “cooler” than i’ll ever be, and when i find myself in social situations feeling like i’ve definitely spent too much time in rural alaska to use certain phrases convincingly, i note what seems to be their appropriate use and sort of say them to myself in my head at appropriate times, to prove to myself that i could be a hipster if i wanted to…or something. i can’t give details at the moment, though, because i haven’t had a conversation that wasn’t mostly about bears or mud in a while now 😛

  7. Being a non Brit living in the UK I have had many attempts trying to use the British accent but equally as many times my friends advised me to stop trying as it sounded like i was trying to make a joke out of their accent.

    Will just stick to my non british accent and who knows over the years it might become a genuine british accent 🙂

  8. Pingback: Doctor-Directed Speech, and Me | vocalized/vocalised

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