The US: Land of lateral speaking

The Telegraph's Malcolm Hawkins explains how, despite speaking the same language (sort of), it can be difficult for a Brit to communicate properly with Americans - and vice versa.....

The land of lateral speaking

By Malcolm Hawkins
Daily Telegraph

Crossing the pond is easy; communication once you have arrived can be less so.

Today, after 15 years as an expat in New England, I still encounter two difficulties.

The first is in speaking in a manner comprehensible to the average American. The second is in understanding the reply.

Many Americans prefer not to open their mouths when speaking, or only minimally and laterally, so vowels and consonants are formed in the back of the throat. The vowels are comically tight in words such as "and" or "chance", and consonants are lazy, especially "t's (they sound more like d's).

I was recently navigating around Cambridge, Massachusetts, a city with an unusually cosmopolitan, almost European atmosphere about 50 miles from our New Hampshire home. I was circulating Harvard Square looking for a slot for my rusting clunker (banger to the Brits) and reversed into a metered space. "Excuse me, have you got a quarter?" A blank expression clouded the face of the passer-by. "A quarter, one of those silver coins. . ."

"Oh, a quarderr, why sure!"

Arranging travel over the telephone has to be done with care. "I'd like to get on a flight from Manchester to Dallas."

"We have a service arriving Washington Dulles 15.35"

"Er, no, Dallas, Texas."

"Would you mind repeating that, sir?" she replied in a drawl from somewhere well south of the Mason-Dixon line. "Cos y'all have an accent!"

The late Alistair Cooke, who came from Blackpool via Cambridge University to New York, had the most distinguished mid-Atlantic accent, known to countless listeners to his Letter from America.

In his television series America, he pointed out that Spanish or French could have become the main language. What a difference that would have made! We would have been spared the broken English that serves as the international language of tourism and Hollywood movies, for a start.

It is a sobering thought that 67 per cent of the world population who speak English as a first language live in North America; the land of split infinitives, the use of nouns as verbs - you can "tuition in" or "gross out" - ugly slang such as "a-whole-nother", and overdone adjectives - "incredible" means quite good, and "spectacular" is applied to things which are not visual.

Abraham Lincoln observed of one of his countrymen: "He can compass the most words into the smallest ideas of any man I ever met." This ability has been passed on to those who are employed to write legal jargon of the kind that you never read, which flashes up on screen when you download software, or confronts you when you sign papers for a mortgage loan.

I have now done this twice in the USA. You only have to sign eight of the pages but they send the other 96 anyway. They can be summed up as: "We are covering our rears from every conceivable angle, and charging you for it."

The advent of the cell phone (mobile in Britain) has added a new dimension to the life of the long-winded. When an Amtrak special I was on recently broke down, close to New York's Grand Central station, the carriage was immediately abuzz with beeps and chitter-chatter. "Hi, honey, it's me. . . late for dinner. . . total boondoggle. . . load of jerks. . ."

The inevitable message from Amtrak cut in; apologising to its hugely valued and esteemed travellers, assuring us the problem would be fixed "momentarily".

Be very wary of that word in America. It usually means a long wait, as it did on this occasion. The tedium of the wait made car travel seemed a beguiling alternative, especially since gas prices were on a descent, from around $3 to $2.15 a gallon.

They have now rocketed back to $2.60! But the ways in which American and British attitudes to the car contrast are worth an article on their own.
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"Would you mind repeating that, sir?" she replied in a drawl from somewhere well south of the Mason-Dixon line. "Cos y'all have an accent!"

But it's not just in America. I've traveled a fair amount and the many different accents applied to the English language are incredible. Going from BBC, where English is said to be pure and untainted by dialect, to some parts of Scotland where the brogue is so thick it is an absolute speech impediment to people from elsewhere trying to understand it.

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