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!)
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.
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.