One of the most fascinating discoveries I made while travelling around the United States of America was the diversity of accents. Despite the fact that English is the primary language in both America and Australia, to understand each other was not always easy.
Our English grammar and vocabulary may be correct, but sometimes we need to learn how to speak the native language and use the accent correctly to be clearly understood. It’s like learning a foreign language.
Of course, there’s the well-known frustrating issue with spelling. If we look at foreign countries, such as Portugal and Brazil, they speak Portuguese and spell most words the same way. Then there’s Spain, Chile, and Mexico, who speak the same Spanish dialect. Their dictionaries correspond almost exactly, although their pronunciation and vocabulary may differ in remote regions. Yet, our English speaking countries can’t agree on how to spell words and names. We can’t agree on pronunciation or grammar either.
Without knowing American sounds, or how to hold my mouth properly, I found it just as difficult to understand as to be understood. Mind you, the Australian accent isn’t easy to imitate either. A few came close, but they still lacked the element that makes our dialect unique.
I think we Australians visitors to the States require an accent lesson to communicate successfully. The problem with grasping the American dialect is the syllable stress and rhythm pattern that varies from state to state. Let’s face it, if I was to travel to a foreign country where English is not the first language, I would probably want to purchase a travel phrasebook for that country.
I have no problem with the Americanised English grammar, but often the varieties of accents need to be understood to appreciate even the simplest conversation; without getting into embarrassing situations. For instance, I learned quickly not to order lemonade when I wanted “Sprite”, and I finally figured out why people gave me a strange look when I requested jam with my morning toast. The hardest thing I found to communicate was my request for an egg cup. Do you realise that most Americans don’t know what an egg cup is, or what it’s used for? Thank God for Amish Walmarts! I usually can’t survive a week without a medium-soft, boiled egg for breakfast. I had to wait a fortnight!
Speaking of a fortnight, I also learned that Americans don’t use the word 'fortnight'. For those who still don’t know what it means, a complete English dictionary will explain that the word is English and it means "two weeks", or "fourteen nights—abbreviated to fortnight".
I can’t remember who it was, but one of my writer friends in America was well-spoken in her accent. She even had a soft, southern curl to her diction; it was quite lovely. However, this same friend pronounced American city names quite strangely. Places like “Noo Yoik” and “Chic-carg-ee” were distinctly recognisable but different in tone and rhythm from others accents I had experienced in previous states I visited. On a few occasions, I was tempted to pinch my nose before I tried to repeat some of these city names.
There were many other words that were curiously different too. For instance, milk sounded more like melk. While I was in a Midwestern state, pin and pen sounded the same. I had to smile at the pronunciation of 'pillow. There, it’s pronounced pellow,which is the same way my son pronounced it when he was a toddler.
I often met the parents and other relatives of my American friends while touring. When these visits were mentioned at a later date, they were referred to by comments like “we went over by their house”, or “we visited with our family”. Here, we usually say “we visited our family” or "went to their house".
I remember a long conversation with Jan in regard to the correct pronunciation of “herbs”. Jan seemed to prefer "erbs" and found some of my accent differences just as entertaining as I found hers. Tammy and I discovered that most of the herbs themselves are pronounced the same, and we use them much the same way too. I guess that’s the most important issue because Tammy has to be the best American cook I've met.
The wrong pronunciation of just one little sound often left my own speech strongly accented. My holiday (that's the Australian word for what Americans call vacation) was immersed in the often-confusing-but-rather-funny situations that left me wondering if we all spoke the same language.
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