“This course will help prepare you for birth and baby,” she said with a Scottish burr, “but you should also view this as an opportunity to make new friends with whom you can share these exciting times. And who knows, maybe a lifelong friendship or two may come of it – it happens often enough. So why don’t we have everyone introduce themselves?”
To my right, a young woman with a northern English accent introduced herself. She and her husband had moved up from Manchester: he is a detective who investigates bank fraud and other financial crimes while she works for a paint company as a chemist, having specialized in the color white. There were a couple of lawyers, a banker, a biologist studying amphibian hibernation patterns; also a couple getting ready to open-up their own pub, and an American woman who, like my sister, had recently moved to Edinburgh.
Although their occupations were representative of Edinburgh’s Morningside, their wording and accents gave away where they came from – with the exception of one woman. I can’t remember what she did for a living because I was so irritated by her accent, which sounded perfectly Scottish to me although she was, in fact, American, and had moved to Edinburgh 13 years ago. I wondered if she had practiced rolling her r’s like that.
We’re social animals. No, we’re social chameleons, and I am as good an example of that as anyone. After one year at Munich International School, I suddenly had “a massive amount of homework” to do rather than “a lot”, was “getting-off” rather than “making-out” (in theory), and I still say “as well” instead of “too.” When I order a cup of tea, my voice goes up a note and I say “Could I have a tea-eee, please?”
There’s a Friends episode in which Amanda Buffamonteezi, originally from Yonkers, returns from London to New York and wants to meet-up with her old roommates, Monica and Phoebe. When Amanda says, “Oh bugger, should I not have said that? I feel like a perfect arse!” Phoebe mutters, “Well, in America you’re just an ass.”
Everybody hates that person. I hate that person and I am that person.
I practiced my German r’s to get rid of my American accent. There were many practical reasons for me to want to perfect my German, but the reason why I wanted to sound German was that once people heard my accent they’d ask me to explain American culture, or lack thereof, or even worse – foreign policy. There were awkward conversations at parties when all I wanted to do was make friends and drink beer like everybody else (never mind that I didn’t like beer).
Once I’d made it through my early twenties – once I’d figured out how to make a living and survive awkward social situations – I finally had the time and energy to return to the English language, back to reading and writing. That’s when I discovered how much my English had deteriorated.
It wasn’t until after I’d bought my domain name that I realized I had spelled “traveller” with a double “l” the way the British do, rather than the American “traveler.” I had looked at the book title by Washington Irving, which had not only been printed in the UK, but also before Noah Webster’s spelling reform dropped the superfluous second “l”. But still.
There are many reasons to let where you come from, who you are, and what you can’t do hold you back. Jack Kerouac apparently doubted his language skills because he came from a French-Canadian working class background and grew-up speaking joual. He didn’t learn English until he went to school and he never felt entirely proficient, so he saw himself forced to improvise in his writing. But still. I ain’t no Jack Kerouac.
In January, I found myself sitting in another circle – this time with my writing group. I asked them to give me feedback on my first blog post, and when a few grammar issues came up and I voiced my insecurity, my German friend said in a perfect American accent “But that’s what editors are for,” as if it were no problem at all.