She looked me in the eyes and smiled sweetly. The attentive gaze of her deep chestnut-brown eyes showed that she was giving her full attention. In a soft, charming tone she then uttered words that touched me deeply; ‘Marcus, I have absolutely no idea what you’ve been saying for the last five minutes’.
This wasn’t the first time. George Bernard Shaw may have said that we are two countries separated by a common language. At times it feels like the UK and the USA are two separate planets. After all, the status on my visa does say that I’m an alien, even if it is ‘an alien of extraordinary abilities’. Unfortunately it seems that these abilities do not always include being understood when I am speaking English. This could be a problem as I’m living here to take a crack at teaching and acting, in my native language.
The native’s colloquial language is a whole new form of English. A fellow ex-pat refers to the Californian vernacular as ‘Lower English’ as if we have travelled some way from the shires and are lost in the swamps on the long road to Mordor. Indeed, my home county of Hertfordshire is a long way away and when faced with the question ‘where are you from originally?’, I plump for a lazy ‘London’ rather than try to explain the geographical location of my hometown Watford. Occasionally I’ll be faced with a particularly ignorant ‘what, London Ontario?’. No, darling, I explain. But we did used to own the place.
The Americans think we are arrogant, whereas the English don’t really care. I’ve been curing homesickness by slowly devouring Sarah Lyall’s book ‘The Anglo Files – A field guide to the English’ where she identifies the British quality of false modesty. Rather than shout about our successes, we are experts in bragging about our failures, but we still have the mentality that we run the world.
Daily, I’m referred to as a ‘Brit’. Not the technically correct ‘Briton’, or the preferable ‘English’, or even ‘Englishman’, but Brit. The word that Jews use to refer to a circumcision ceremony. Yes, it’s incredibly annoying, but that’s only the beginning.
Living in America is a huge priviledge but takes some linguistic adjustment. There are certain words that it’s easier to let go of, substituting ‘loo’ for ‘bathroom’ even though there are no baths, ‘bin’ for ‘garbage can’ and ‘rubbish’ for ‘trash’. I’m still quixotically hanging on to the old words and repeat them until I’m understood, in a possibly unnecessary expenditure of energy. The most frustrating is asking for liquid refreshment in a restaurant, being faced with a repeated ‘what?’ when I ask for water. On the fifth attempt I take a deep breath, put on a standard American accent and shout ‘WHA-DERRRRR’ before receiving a smile and a jug. Sorry, a pitcher.
The adjectival famine that is as prevalent as LA’s natural water shortage. Rather than describing something as superb, engaging, enlightening, uplifting or another hundred alternatives, there is the ubiquitous ‘awesome’. It feels as if somebody has just ripped out all of the pages from the dictionary to save time. This is the Diet Coke of English, and there are dead poets rolling in their tombs beneath Westminster Abbey.
Californian has forgotten how to say ‘you’re welcome’. On hearing the words thank you, many of the locals will respond with an ‘uh-huh’, ‘mm-hmmm’, ‘sure’, ‘for sure’ or ‘no problem’. To the refined English ear, this is nothing less than receiving an aggressive v-sign (the British sign-language for ‘go forth and procreate’), not that that would mean anything over here. Why use two fingers when one is quicker?
People also yawn in public without covering their mouth and when I explained to a student that ‘young ladies in Europe cover their mouths when yawning’, the response was ‘I’m not a young lady and I’m not from Europe’. Most confusing of all, these rules of etiquette that are drummed into the British at an early age, even extend to the dinner plate. On preparing to clear up the dishes at the end of a meal I waited patiently for people to place their knives and forks side by side. I waited and waited but nothing happened. Another European custom, it seems, that was thrown out with the rest of the adjectives.
Most shockingly of all, everybody thinks I have an accent and I’m treated to poor imitations on a daily basis. With the rounded, rhotic ‘r’ that characterises standard American speech, I have to hear the irritating ‘Mahhhh-carrrrrrrrs’ sung by self-satisfied natives who have all the dialectical accuracy of Dick Van Dyke. My standard response to these pathetic faux English impressions is ‘Good Mahwning May-ree Paw-peens’ but even that insult is too subtle for some. Maybe they’ll understand it when the classic London musical is covered on an episode of ‘Glee’.
There are a thousand ways to describe the varied joy of life in the US, but why resort to tiresome linguistic richness or savouring the delicately nuanced details when I can use the catch-all? It’s awesome.
There’s a word that everyone understands.
Marcus J Freed
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