Nov 6, 2006


I think I'm a pretty liberal person. Very liberal. I'm all tolerant and progressive. I like NPR and vote Democratic, I enjoy tofu, eat healthy foods,and listen to moody indie rock. I want to save the Earth and be able to see gay people get married. You know, all that progressive stuff.
Anyway, nice, tofu-eating, indy-rock-enjoying, Democratic-voting people are a pretty tolerant lot, right? We're above doing dumb, culturally insensitive stuff, like, oh, I don't know, making fun of people who are different than us. You know, like the dirty, stinking, tea-swilling British.
One of my coworkers, the already mentioned British Girl, is, as you can probably figure out, is from that northern island. She's got those adorable little "Union Jacks" along with a "Map of the British Isles" hung in her classroom, where she teaches naive Japanese folks the mongrelized dialect that she laughingly refers to as "English." Ha-ha! Silly English! Don't they know they actually speak British?
Anyway we both had a lot of time on our hands at the end of the day on saturday, so we were just chatting outside our respective classrooms, and we got to discussing our various linguistic differences. I think it began when she attempted to correct my pronunciation of the word "leisure," which I pronounced (correctly, I might add) "lee-sure." She, though, insisted that the One True Way of intonating Mr. Suit Larry's first name was "le sure." Now, while "le sure" would be a great name for an ironic French music magazine, it is not how one pronounces leisure.
C'mon, Yanks. Are you with me?
Anyway, I decided to just sort of roll with it initially, and attempted to take her "corrections" in stride. "Le sure," I said, "but that just sounds like I'm mocking a British accent."
"No it doesn't," she said, "you just sound normal when you say it like that."
"Oh?" I asked, "So I sound all correct and British?"
Now, I knew that at this moment I could have simply let things slide and changed topics. I didn't do that. I conjured up my best memories of Dick Van Dyke in Mary Poppins and...
"Pip, pip!"
"Stop that. No one actually says that."
"Pip, pip, Guvn'or! Bob's yer uncle?"
"British people don't actually talk like that, you know."
"What's all this, then?"
"Ok, that one was not funny!"
"Bugger me bobbins, Guvn'or! Right-O! Jolly good! Blimey!"
This was about the point where she started hitting me.
"Bloody 'ell! She's 'ittin me, she is! Pip, pip, gel!"
"Yeah, meaner British people would be hitting you in the face instead of the arm!"
"Lay off, old gel! Lay off!" Yeah, she was a bit amused, but she was pissed. And I thought it was hilarious in a sort of twisted, international sociopathic way.
"How would you like it if I made a fake Southern accent?" She asked.
"Well, ah reckon ah'd be right amused by that, ma'am. Shore would. Yee-haw!"
We actually ended up having a long, nerdy conversation about the evolution of English, the migration of various dialects, and such. She's not pissed at me, and I don't hate British people, but damn was it fun exploiting cultural stereotypes.


Ok, not meanwhile, but actually the day before that, another coworker (A Japanese guy who speaks flawless American English, and whom I will henceforth refer to as Hip-Hop, given his musical tastes) and I were sitting around Ye Olde Conversational English School, and he asked me if I wanted to do some prep work for interviewing prospective students. When a new student comes in, I've got a series of questions of progressive conversational difficulty that I ask them and see how good they are with it. It's like "Blade Runner," but without the robots and mood lighting.
Anyway, Hip Hop sat down and said, "Ok, I'm going to pretend to be a new student, and you try to guess my level of English."
"Ok," I said, and the role-play began.
"Hello," said me.
Hip Hop leaned forward, his hands folded and his eyes ever so slightly wider. "He-ROH!"
Do not laugh, I thought, don't be a dick. Do. Not. Laugh.
I laughed.
"What you laugh? What? My Engrish funny? Funny Engrish?" damn if he didn't milk the rs for all they were worth. He did it with a totally straight face. Now, I've hear plenty of Japanese people with not the best English, and it's fine. I'm not some chauvanistic dick who laughs whenever someone drops an article. Hell, they're bilingual and I'm not. I respect that. But, seeing a perfectly fluent guy deliberately fake the worst, bad, stereotypical Japanse accent was not something I could not laugh at, and I kind of hated myself for it even though Hip Hop was reveling in exploiting the stereotype. Japan will ruin me.


Last night in a bar with some other teachers, one of them, a Japanese woman, said "I just love it when Westerners try to speak Japanese! You guys have the most adorable bad accents. It's just so cute!"
"Oh?" said I.
"Yeah! You need to learn Japanese so I can make fun of you."
Aren't stereotypes fun? I think we all learned a lot today.


Anonymous said...

If you really want to get the Brits riled up, try describe everything with "kitty corner." They don't know what it means and think is sounds stupid (ok, well maybe it does. like where's the cat anyway?). It used to make my British coworker irate in an ridiculously irrational way.

They get back at the with their "let's meet at the weekend" prepositional misuse.

All differences aside though, my new coworker has the thickest Scottish accent I've seen in a teacher and I AM IN LOVE!!! His words make me melt! But he's engaged. So I'm safe.

Have fun navigating the nonpronuncification.

Eight-and-a-Half-Tails said...

So, in an effort to keep up my Japanese skills, I found this podcast that is aimed at people in Japan learning Japanese. So far its major low-level review for me, but I thought that it'd be perfect for my good old chum Joe.

It's called and you can get it free on the iTunes podcast thingy. You'll have to tell iTunes to show you all casts, not just the most recent 10, to get back to the beginner stuff...

Have fun horribly mispronouncing things!

Joseph said...

I always found it sufficient to point out that American English is by far the more popular of the two dialects (~2/3 of native speakers live in the US), and use that to justify my correctitude. Guaranteed to start a fun, irrational flame war.

Sydney said...

When Pete was in Germany, there was this Swedish guy, Kari (which is usually a girl's name, but I swear to God he was a very tall man with Cary Elwes hair), who spoke perfect, flawless English. His accent depended on who he was with. That's right, employing his genetic gift for languages that all Swedes seem to have, he had learned both British and American accents. It was so totally weird to walk by him talking to a group of English students and hear the delightful contours of a typical BBC broadcast issuing from his lips. And just as BBC English represents a fairly merged, non-regional accent for the English, to his American peers he spoke with the merged mid-back vowels of a mid-westerner (or just west... -erner... whatever). Once he was confronted with a mixed group, and although he tried to pick his accent based on to whom he was speaking, it was often influenced by whomever had just spoken. "Oh God, this is so hard!" he said.

I myself cannot (as anyone who has spent any time with me can attest) "do" accents to save my life. All accent impressions come out as both Mexican (and mean, degrading, Carlos Mencia Mexican, even though he's really Honduran, but whatever), and Jewish (well, Dr. Zoidberg, anyway) except for my Mexican impression, which comes out as French. And trying to get me to say my low-center vowel ("a") as a low-back vowel makes Pete giggle every time. (This of the difference betwee how Yanks and Limeys say "father." The US uses a more central low vowel, and the Brits use a truly back low vowel. For a pictoral representation:

But that Swede - and many others, or so I've been told - could switch between the two as easily as he could between Swedish, English, German and God-only-knows what other languages. Kudos to him! And Kudos to you for reminding at least one English lass that the English sound just as silly to the International Marketplace (of ideas? of Elmo dolls? I couldn't come up with a better word) as us Americans. Or, as they say in Baltimore, Amrrr'cins.