First published in American Athenaeum, Summer 2013 issue entitled Things They Carry (Sword and Saga Press), which can be ordered here.
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When I arrived, it was summertime, which made it easy to fall in love with everything about my new surroundings: the huge, flawless blue skies, the warm weather, the space, the orderliness, the unexpected friendliness of the people, the biking, sailing, swimming, and running. Although Madison’s size qualified it as a city, it seemed more like a vacation colony. There were no people in suits, no traffic jams, no obvious pollution. The airport parking lot was little more than a field. Most houses were built of wood instead of brick or stone, which to my eye made them seem temporary, like boathouses, not sturdy enough for human dwellings. People on campus dressed as if they were going to bed or the beach, in sweatpants, shorts and sandals.
Everything appeared larger, but also one-dimensional. Hardly any buildings were above two storeys high, and they did not seem deeply rooted. The main road, through the neighborhood where I lived, resembled a set for a western, as if the shop fronts were mere cardboard façades that could blow over in a strong wind. The sheer size of the land around us, the space that made that kind of horizontal, spread-out construction possible, overwhelmed me. In the countryside the fields were enormous; the eye was not bombarded with visual detail—hedgerows, winding lanes, trees, villages, undulations in the terrain—but encountered only flat earth and sky. What’s more, you could drive for hours in any direction and nothing much changed. I had landed in an ocean of space.
American prosperity translated into larger sizes for everything—houses, cars, fridges, parking spaces, lakes, closets, salaries, roads and clothes. Popcorn was sold in places called movie theaters in buckets big enough for ten, not small paper bags, as I was used to. Work occupied a huge space in peoples’ lives. Even emotions seemed super-sized. I wasn’t sure why people smiled so widely; or why they said, “wow,” as if seriously awed or impressed at what seemed like mundane remarks to me. I missed the deadpan humor and lightning-fast irony of British conversation, which seemed out of sync with the style of conversations here.
I moved into a little house on a lake, where I swam every day. The proximity to water and farmland felt reassuringly similar to my parents’ home in Shropshire, which was a five-minute walk from a small mere, a canal and a farm. Soon, I was biking to campus to spend my days at the university library, stunned at the apparently limitless size of its collection, the fact that it was open at all hours, and that it allowed free access to the photocopy machines. (At Cambridge University, where I was a student, these were jealously guarded by the staff, who imposed a strict page limit for copies, demanded lengthy written requests, and charged exorbitant fees).
It was all very pleasant, but rather bewildering. I felt unmoored, at sea in a place where the language was familiar but altered, where even the simplest words could mean something different. What made it hard wasn’t the new words like eggplant for aubergine or zucchini for courgette or restroom for toilets—I was a linguist, so I was used to learning new words—but the words that had retained the same spelling over the last four hundred years, while traveling divergent paths to new meanings. A yard was not made of concrete; pants were not underwear; corn was not wheat but maize; chips were not potato fries; smart did not mean well-dressed; a brat was not necessarily a nasty child. The language was studded with words with meanings that had shifted, either subtly or completely, such as kettle, mad, produce, trunk, hockey, store, truck, candy, biscuit, football, holiday, and college.
I kept thinking of the Venn diagrams learned in high school math, as word meanings expanded or shrank, so that a general category would become a subset or vice versa. For instance, the kind of thick, chilled custard called pudding here was certainly a pudding to a British speaker, but not to be confused with “pudding” the dessert course. For British speakers, school ends after high school, whereas for Americans it includes higher education, or indeed any form of learning, at any age. Some words depended on physical context. How to make my mother—thousands of miles away and confused about the six-hour time difference between us—understand what winter meant in Wisconsin? How to convey in one word the length and rigor of our five months of Siberian cold, blizzards, ice and sub-zero temperatures, when her experience of the word was England’s gray, rainy forties and fifties? How to explain that a muffin was a jumbo-sized fairy cake and not something you toasted and ate with butter?
On an aside, the word badger caused me a peculiar cultural jolt. In a slightly uncanny coincidence, Wisconsin’s official nickname, the Badger State, comes from the Cornishmen who came in the 1830s to mine for lead. Our family (also descended from Cornish tin miners) had a romance with badgers thanks to my naturalist father, who adored and revered them, and would spend long hours rambling the local woods every week noting recent activity in the dens, called setts, the locations of which he knew intimately. On summer nights he would sometimes post himself downwind and wait among the trees for hours, motionless, in hopes of a sighting. British badgers were the Eurasian variety; they looked and acted differently than their American cousins. They were tenacious fighters if cornered and tortured, (the verb “to badger” comes from the obsolete sport of badger-baiting), but otherwise were so shy, and extremely difficult to see. Even Mole and Rat have a hard time tracking down kindly old Mr. Badger in The Wind in the Willows. So I felt a visceral wrongness every time I saw the University of Wisconsin logo of a squat, pugnacious animal with its chest stuck out, the epitome of brash aggressiveness.
G. B. Shaw wrote in Pygmalion, “the moment an Englishman opens his mouth, another Englishman despises him.” The moment you open your mouth in Britain to say the simplest sentence, someone is reacting to you, putting you in a mental pigeonhole—my kind of person, not my kind of person. I grew up not being able to speak without apprehension of the results, which usually seemed to involve hostility or alienation. Arriving in Wisconsin for the first time, the idea that people might not instantly dislike me just for the way I spoke was a revelation. It made me realize how much I braced for rejection every time I opened my mouth, how much pain and pronunciation were linked for me.
Linguistic anxiety was something I acquired in 1969, at the age of eight. My early childhood was spent in suburban Surrey, in the ambit of my parents, who spoke with a southeastern accent known as Received Pronunciation or R.P. (also known as the Queen’s English or Oxford English.) Formerly a desirable and prestigious accent, R.P. was systematically inculcated for at least a hundred years at British public schools (meaning, a handful of the oldest and most exclusive private schools in Britain). In the age of empire, it made practical sense to erase regional accents among the ruling class, in order to make future colonial administrators more comprehensible to the subjects they would rule. My parents were good examples. My father was born to Irish parents in Kuala Lumpur, Malaya. My mother was born into an RAF family in what is now Pakistan, but at the time was known as the Northwest Frontier Province of India. My father had no trace of his parents’ Irish accent because he had been sent to public school in England. His first job was a British government posting in northern Nigeria.
When my father said a sentence like, she’s been in the bath for half an hour, he pronounced bath like half, and hour with the same long vowel /a:/. Coffee and happy were pronounced coffi and happi. The u in revolution was pronounced revolyution, not revolootion. The word reduce was pronounced redyuce, not rejuice.
I had no awareness of accent differences or discords while living in the south of England, although I’m sure I would have acquired it soon enough with age. My linguistic innocence ended abruptly, however, when we moved to a small town in Shropshire, on the Welsh border, and I began attending the local primary school. Suddenly, I had only to say one word, hello, for example, and children visibly reacted, withdrew, and mocked me as a snob. The old saying,
“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me,” was certainly not true then. They perceived of my accent as posh, or a snobby, which sometimes led them to literally throw stones at me on the way home from school. An undercurrent of violence existed around language in British society that was never very far below the surface.
British people are more sensitive to accent than any other English-speaking country, because it is a mark of caste as well as geography. In the United Kingdom, (slightly smaller than the state of Oregon), regional accents are still vastly more different and various than they are in the
United States in an area of comparable size. But people rarely ask each other, where are you from?, a question I encounter in America regularly. In the world where I grew up, the real question was: are you one of us? Who are your people? The answer was always instantly obvious from someone’s accent—a remarkably accurate predictor of what kind of house you lived in, what kind of school you went to, and what your parents did.
In England in the ‘60s and ‘70s, locating someone geographically didn’t matter as much as locating them socially in the class labyrinth. And class wasn’t necessarily a reflection of income.
My father was a teacher, my mother a secretary who left school at fourteen and became a housewife after she married. They had four children and money was very tight, yet they mixed with the staff at the local public school and the landed gentry, rather than the people who lived in the cottages on our street. In lifestyle, creed and habits, there was a gulf between us—something that the Shropshire children instantly perceived in my speech and resented.
Just as the children below me on the social ladder disliked me because they perceived me as privileged and condescending, I, in my turn, felt discomfort around the children of my parents’ upper-class friends, because their accents conveyed a privileged existence—private school, skiing trips on the Continent, living in mansions—from which my family was permanently excluded because of income. With them, I felt awkward and ashamed in the homemade clothes my mother sewed; for me they were damning proof of our family’s struggle to make ends meet.
British English is filled with shibboleths that can trip you up. You move gingerly, always aware of unexploded ordnance that might open up a gulf between Us and Them; between the people who say napkin and the people who say serviette; the people who say tea and the people who say supper; the people who say sofa and the people who say settee; the people who say bye and the people who say ta-ta.
Two decades after my move to America, I had an experience while on a visit to England that highlighted just how potent these shibboleths could be. While walking through a council estate in Cornwall, a group of young teenagers were hanging around, and I said hello to them. Instantly, they began parodying a rarefied, aristocratic accent—one only used now by the Queen and heard in World War II newsreels—but they had picked up enough from those two syllables to detect that we weren’t from the same social strata. Instinctively, they magnified the difference to grotesque, funhouse size, and wielded it as a weapon to mock me: “Eoh, helleoh, haa do you
This kind of meanness and harassment was responsible for a whole generation of young people—my generation—adopting a different accent than their parents, one that didn’t mark them either as working class or privileged, which allowed them to fit in better at school or work by concealing their class origins. For youngsters, like me, whose parents had R.P. accents, it involved toning them down, adopting many features of London working class usage and pronunciation in order to avoid arousing hostility. For example, deliberately using more glottal stops in place of the t: sea’belt, or ne’work. Pronouncing tu words, such as Tuesday or tune, as chooseday and choon. Or even shortening the a in words like bath. It also involved the use of more colloquial words and expressions, such as cheers for both thank you and goodbye. In my teens I was very aware of this linguistic chameleonism, and observed it in my siblings and peers, although we never spoke about it. We were trying to pass. In 1984, two years before I came to America, a linguist, David Rosewarne, identified this new phenomenon in the Times Educational Supplement, calling the new dialect, Estuary English, a term that stuck as the phenomenon expanded. Estuary English is now well on its way to becoming standard English across the class spectrum. Public figures as various as Prince Edward, David Beckham, and Jamie Oliver speak it; it’s even now widespread at the BBC.
Perhaps not surprisingly, given my crash course in the subtleties of accent, I showed an aptitude for languages as a teenager, and was accepted to study Modern Languages at Cambridge University in 1980, with funding from Shopshire County Council. However, I needed to study two modern languages, and I had only one, French. No beginners were accepted. You were expected to have a good grounding in both languages before you arrived. So in January 1980, at the age of nineteen, I left home for the first time to live in Madrid for six months as an au pair and pick up Spanish as best I could.
In my new job, baffled by the strange customs, food, living arrangements, the move from a quiet backwater to a cacophonous capital city, and the stream of utterly incomprehensible speech that surrounded me every day, I went mute. I was terrified of both my employers and my charges, and wincingly afraid of making a mistake if I ventured beyond Sí and No, so I said as little as possible. Adult language learners don’t have the advantages of children, who get a two-year grace period listening and observing before beginning to speak their first language. But I did my best to replicate it by keeping mostly silent for months; I kept copious notes of everything I heard and pored over them at night. I made a conscious effort to imitate whatever I heard, parroting phrases and reactions. Towards the end of my stay, even with my extremely limited vocabulary, people began remarking that I had a good accent.
As the years passed, my Spanish improved as I completed first an undergraduate and then a graduate degree in Spanish language and literature, and spent several spells living in Madrid. I realized that learning a foreign language allowed me to experiment with acquiring a new personality. In English I was a loner—reserved, cautious, ironic and misanthropic. In Spanish I was enthusiastic, friendly, outgoing and popular. I would chat about anything and everything just because I could, because it allowed me to practice sounding authentically Spanish.
Eventually, people in Spain stopped assuming I was foreign. My chameleon strategy had worked—I passed. Even when I was discovered to be English, they praised me for sounding so Spanish, for fitting in.
When I moved to the United States, I couldn’t use the strategy of accent imitation that worked so well for me in Spain. Doing so in my first language felt as if I would lose my core identity, and I couldn’t create a middle ground like Estuary English, because I would be the sole speaker of a new dialect rather than part of a nationwide trend. It made sense to use the local lexicon, but changing my accent entirely from British to American was another matter. I had arrived as an adult, with a lifetime of speaking the language behind me, and to deliberately change, felt like a betrayal. In the bewilderment of a new environment, I needed the continuity of an identity with roots, even if they were somewhere else.
I made a parallel decision about my Spanish accent. My first academic job, in Illinois, involved teaching Spanish language, composition and literature in Spanish, which posed a set of linguistic challenges. My students’ frame of reference was naturally Latin American, and generally Mexican; but by that point I had a firm linguistic identity in Spanish as a woman from Madrid. I didn’t want to lose that identity, but wanted to meet my students and colleagues halfway. So I made the same adjustments I did to American English, using continent-specific words, but keeping my Madrid accent. I didn’t use the Spanish pronoun system, or vocabulary that was only spoken in Spain. I had to develop bicultural fluency in Spanish as well as English, a working knowledge of Mexican Spanish (and that of other Latin American countries), without assuming it as an identity.
Accent loyalty was not without its drawbacks. In my first month here, I had to ask for a glass of agua in a restaurant because the waitress and I were unable to communicate over the word water—the long, flat British a, the soft t and the lack of r, combined to frustrate understanding. Interestingly, she had absolutely no problem understanding it in Spanish. Similarly, I was almost unable to make a reservation to fly to Newark because I couldn’t make the phonetic difference between Newark and New York accurately enough to make sense to the increasingly irate airline sales rep on the other end of the phone.
Even now, a quarter-century later, with an American husband and son, I’m sometimes reluctant to make enquiries or place catalog orders over the phone for fear of not making myself understood. “You do it,” I tell my husband, a New Yorker. “You speak the language.” I still slightly dread having to spell our address out loud because our street name includes the word lawn, which always causes trouble. The aw vowel is much wider in American; in British English it is a smaller, rounder o sound. If pressed, Americans tend to write down lone when I say lawn.
In the early years there were frequent misunderstandings or slight bumps in communication. When my husband left me notes saying things like I went to the store, I would assume he was now somewhere else, or that it was from a different day altogether, because if he was still at the store he would’ve written I’ve gone to the store. British English uses the present perfect–I have done—to talk about the recent past.
Nowadays the differences I encounter between American and British are becoming ever subtler. A few years ago, I spent most of the day cooking a sumptuous meal for my father-in-law. Afterwards he sat back and said, “That was quite good.” I was crushed, because for me quite was a detractor, not a re-enforcer. It was as if he had just said, “Well, that was passable.”
As Jonathan Raban, the author of Driving Home, puts it, when you’re an immigrant, you need to “grow a memory.” You lack all the shared allusions to culture and experience—characters from TV shows, minor political figures, advertising jingles, types of candy, names of athletes, sports, holidays and rituals, foods. I didn’t know who Peewee Herman was, or what a Snickers bar was, or hyperventilating, or Woodstock, or Friends, or 90210, or a fourth down, or a strike. I had no equivalent of a high school yearbook or a college roommate. I had never taken SATs or prelims. In the early years, I often felt lost or lonely in conversations because I had no companion memories to match those around me, effectively shutting me out from a community of experience.
Nowadays, I’m growing a memory through my son. I’ve lived in America for twenty-seven years, longer than any other place—half my life. I have a stake in the country now. I have given birth here. The foreign has become part of my family. As my son, with his American accent and vocabulary, goes through school I gradually acquire associations with each of the grades—riding the yellow school bus in kindergarten, learning to read in first grade, learning to ride a bike without training wheels in third grade, starting cursive in fourth grade. So far, my memory extends only to fifth grade; but in time, hopefully, I will vicariously experience the college system and young adulthood. At which point I will have caught up with myself, since I arrived at twenty-five. No longer simply a resident alien, I have naturalized. I may not sound like a native, but, like a bulb planted some place and left to its own devices, I have put down roots, multiplied, and settled in.