Before coming to Oxford, one of my goals for the semester was to study British speech patterns. I wanted to become so good at imitating a British accent that I could fool the English themselves. It would be fun to walk into a pub or cafe—someplace I wouldn’t be recognized—and be taken for a native by my manners and speech.
Easier said than done.
The problem lies in the fact that there are so many different British dialects. Having never been to England before, I naively took my knowledge of British speech from My Fair Lady. Eliza Doolittle begins with one dialect—Cockney—and by the end of the play, she has learned proper speech. These two dialects, in my mind, constituted the whole of British speech.
Being in England has corrected my mistaken assumptions. There are so many different dialects—if you come from London, you will speak differently than an Oxfordian or someone from Manchester or Liverpool. The differences in speech, however, are so subtle that it is difficult for my untrained ears to distinguish them. Also problematic is the fact that I can’t work on imitating one dialect because I don’t know which dialect it is. Does my tutor have a Winchester accent, or come from somewhere else? Because Oxford is a national center for academia, I am constantly coming into contact with people from all over England, which doesn’t help me distinguish the Oxford dialect from others.
Last Sunday, several of us were invited after church to go to a local’s home for lunch. It was delightful—good conversation and fellowship. There were quite a few Americans present, and we fell to talking about some of the differences between the US and UK. British speech came up, and one chap said jokingly that Americans’ idea of a British accent was to speak like the queen, or someone from the gutter—everything in between is lost on us. I’m starting to pick up some of the subtle differences between the various accents around Oxford, but the very little I’ll understand in three months is nothing compared to a lifetime growing up in the culture itself.
What a pity. I dearly wanted to fool some Brits at their own game.