Exploring a New Soundscape An American in Britain tunes into the different sounds

Read more Last updated: December 2019
In collection Life
Reading duration: 6 minutes

When I was growing up, my dad’s job meant that we moved every few years. We would pack up the house, get in the car and drive to our new life in another state. I've lived in the Midwest, the South-West, the West, the South and along the East Coast.

And each place had its own soundtrack

Take Texas, for instance. The heat and humidity gave everything a languid tone. The oak trees rustled in the wind, their branches heavy with lichen and the humming of insects. Mariachi music ran through the background, giving a simple outing on the Riverwalk in San Antonio a festive feel. And the Spanish accents and vocabulary punctuated daily life.

When I first moved to England, I lived in London. Zone 2. I’d escaped from the American suburbs where very little happened and landed in the middle of the urban soundscape.

There were people everywhere, crowding in Trafalgar Square or along Regent Street. Fragments of conversation flowed around me, a kaleidoscope of languages and accents. Everyone was from somewhere else in London and I felt at home in the muddle of it all.

My self-contained, air-conditioned commute by car was utterly transformed. The Underground screeched and rattled through the deep tunnel network below the surface of London. While above, the busses huffed and lurched down the street. The train doors signalled their imminent closing by a series of high-pitched beeping.

Inside the house, I had traded my stovetop kettle for an electric version. I no longer waited for the piercing whistle of steam forced through a single hole to tell me the water was hot. The electric kettle simply rattled and bubbled away until a quiet click occurred and all activity ceased.

The pub culture quickly became one of my favourite things about England. I loved the pubs with low-beamed ceilings and thick walls. The abundance of dark, knotty wood and a fireplace crackling merrily in the corner of the room. There was rarely music, unless it was live, and the hand-pulling of cask ale behind the counter provided the rhythm of the night. It made for a cosily claustrophobic atmosphere, thick with conversation and laughter.

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A shared language?

America has at least 10 clear regional dialects and many more sub-dialects. But in truth, the variations never got in the way of me understanding people. As I moved throughout my formative years, I found that by mimicking the local accent and adopting some new words and phrases, I felt less like the new girl. And that’s incredibly important to a 13-year-old in a new school.

So when I moved to England from America, I expected an easy transition, at least where the language was concerned. Because even though it was a foreign country, in the strictest sense, English was our shared language, right? Not quite.

After six years in London, I made the move north to West Yorkshire. During my time in the country, I’ve travelled throughout England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales. I've experienced several of the key regional dialects in the UK.

The multicultural nature of the urban centres means the accent is fairly neutral. But as I explore the rural areas, my ear struggles to recognise phrases.

I recall a 20-minute taxi ride in Scotland several years ago with a steady commentary from the driver. The only word I caught was ‘football’. Thank goodness my British husband was there to carry our side of the conversation.

For me, the main differences in speaking English in England are pronunciation, vocabulary and mindset.

Busy London Regent Street with noise
© Getty Images

You say ’tom[a]to’, I say ’tom[ah]to’.

There's no doubt pronunciation matters. And it's often the vowels that make the most difference, especially ‘a’ and ‘o’. But there are also differences in how and when British and Americans pronounce ‘r’ and ’t’.

I’ve been here long enough now to say ‘basil', ‘vitamins' and ‘tomato' like a local. But I still feel like an imposter when I say the word ‘garage' with a British accent. It feels odd to use two syllables rather than the American one, and to place the stress at the beginning of the word.

I forget sometimes to change back to American vowels when I’m on the phone to my family stateside. I can only imagine they are rolling their eyes at me, like Phoebe and Monica on the episode of Friends when Amanda moves back to New York from England. She talks about ‘popping by the flat’ instead of 'stopping by the apartment' and says ‘ring me on my mobile’ instead of ‘call my cell’. Both phrases I now find myself using regularly.

What’s in a word?

In addition to flats and mobiles, I’ve had to learn that zucchini is called courgette, eggplant is aubergine, cilantro is coriander and arugula is rocket. I still find myself asking for scallions instead of spring onions.

In my defence, Americanisms are often closer to ‘pure’ English than the current British English is. The early settlers who became the first Americans preserved much of the language at the time. Back in England, the language continued to evolve and diversify.

For example, Americans refer to 'fall' where a Brit would use 'autumn', but 'fall' is what the Anglo-Saxons would have used in the 16th and 17th centuries. And Shakespeare coined the words 'diaper' and 'trash', which are both still in common use in America while (or should I say, 'whilst'?) the British say 'nappy' and 'rubbish'.

It’s a matter of mindset

One of the things I love most about language is the way it shapes your experience of a place. A culture’s attitude and worldview are often reflected in the tone and subtext of the conversations.

The motto of Texas is ‘Everything is bigger in Texas’. It’s a nod to the expansive grasslands, the limitless horizon, the ambition and ego of the people. Not to mention the portion sizes! But I find echoes of this attitude throughout America when I go back for a visit.

Emotions and volume are dialled up to eleven. Things are the best or the worst. It’s either a tragedy or a triumph. It’s a country of superlatives.

In contrast, I find England to be a bit more understated, given to logic and reason, at least on the surface of things. I appreciate the quieter, self-deprecating humour. The Stoic approach to cracking on with the hand life has dealt you.

When I first moved to England, I took everything literally, at face value. I’ve had to learn the art of irony and sarcasm. It’s often an inflection in a word, a tone of voice or a wry grin that gives the joke away.

As I move through my adopted country, my ear is becoming more attuned to the rhythm and phrases as old as the land itself. From the sharp stillness of a snowy moor in March to the celebratory atmosphere of a street party for a royal wedding, the sounds of the country add a rich and layered texture to my days.

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