October 2004


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American 101

Monica over at Th’ inkwell mentioned how odd it would be were she to visit friends here in the States, since she reads their emails and whatnot with an English accent in her head. For those Europeans who might stumble across this, here’s a brief look at the insanity that is American English.

American 101 continues…
If you’ve watched any sort of American television programming, you have been exposed to at least some of our various manglings of the English language. This is far from an accurate representation, since all tv dialog is toned down to the point where anyone watching it can understand. (IE, written for twelve-year-olds, with some rare exceptions.) In Europe, this would be atributed to the fact that every time you cross a border, the native language changes to something completely different. Here in America, though, we are all basically speaking English – it can just sound like a different language, once you combine local colloquialisms with truncated vowels, elongated sylables or any number of mispronunciations.

For example, when travelling to New York, you will likely find people pronouncing ‘bird’ as ‘boid’ or ‘Charlie’ as Cholly’. These people are Brooklynese, and I myself find it amazing that such a small geographic area completely inside another city can have such a distinct dialect.

In Boston, what sounds like the call of a crow is actually the word ‘car’. Basically, any word ending in ‘-ar’ is pronounced ‘-ah’, in reverse of the Cockney habit of losing the preceding ‘h’.

In the Southern U.S., you’ll find they take their time talking, dragging words out in a drawl that can tend to run words together, forming almost an entirely new language. “Djeet?” is actually an inquiry into whether or not you have eaten a meal recently.

Up in North Dakota, the language has retained a strange sort of Swedish accent that I simply cannot describe, it must be heard. Thankfully, the movie ‘Fargo’ does it justice as well as being darn funny.

In many inner city neighborhoods, you will encounter African-Americans speaking what our government has dubbed ‘Ebonics’, which can best be described as English being spoken phonetically by a dislexic, combined with the pervasive colloquialisms. “I wuzn’t down, so I axed er” is not the confession of a brutal murder, but rather can be translated as “I wasn’t sure what was happening, so I asked her for clarification.”

Perhaps the strangest of all comes from California, where “Yo, duuuude, whassup?” actually means “Hello, my friend, how has your life been treating you?” The language may not be all that off, but the accompanying arcane hand gestures can throw you. A loose fist with thumb and pinky extended next to your ear is an almost-universal symbol for ‘call me later’, but the same gesture done with a sliding motion across the body between shoulder and waist would mean ‘Hang Ten’; a reference to having your toes hanging over the edge of your surfboard, generally held to mean ‘relax and enjoy life’.

The only places in America where you will hear what seems to be an appropriate accent is in the Southwestern states of Texas and New Mexico, where you will commonly hear a Spanish or Native-American accent due to the large numbers of Mexican immigrants and Indian Reservations in the area. Everywhere else, we don’t have a reason.

There are, however, a few places where you will encounter speech that is really not that far from standard English, once you take into account that Americans move their mouths very little when speaking. My own home state of Oregon, for example, has very little in the way of dialect beyond certain colloquialisms. There are, however, certain phrases an native of England might want to avoid:

In America, we use erasers to correct an error made in pencil, as a rubber is a prophylactic.

Ask the man at the hotel desk for a wake-up call, not to knock you up. Unless, of course, you really are interested in carrying his child.

Asking for a pack of fags will get you directions to a part of town you might not have been intending to visit populated by very friendly men.

I have no idea what ‘spotted dick’ is, but in America you will only find it in a venereal disease clinic, and owned by a man who forgot to wear his rubber.

One reply to “American 101”

  1. Kylanath Says:

    *laughter* that reminds me of when The Twinlet and I were in Cost Plus last weekend drooling and snarking over the various import foods. We were snarking on the fact that “spotted dick” comes in a can. Who knew?