We're Not Spot On

This is a guest post by my wife, Colleen O’Neill.

A few months ago my husband and I took a linguistics quiz that created a personal dialect map of the United States based on the phrases and pronunciations you choose. My husband, who grew up mostly in Glasgow, got answers that were interpreted as some sort of confused West-Coast dialect. When I took mine I was surprised that although I was living in Maryland at the time, it pinpointed my dialect almost exactly to where I had spent the majority of my life so far: Mid-Michigan, West-Michigan, and a slight hint of the Twin Cities.

Linguistics has been a reoccuring topic in our relationship because from the beginning, a number of people assumed that I was totally enamored with Sid because he is Scottish, particularly because he has a Scottish accent. I never quite knew how to respond when someone would insinuate this (or just flat out say it) because I was enamored with him… but it had nothing to do with the way he pronounced his words, or the type of beer he preferred, or the way he liked his hair to be cut. I liked him for his witty and sometimes sullen humor. I liked the way he asked me to date him, totally ready to pursue me rather than give me a few trial runs on “not-date” dates first. I liked that I could see that his family was important to him and that he was a man of his word.

Now that we’re married, I don’t really notice his accent anymore, but I am often reminded of it — mostly when other people try to imitate him, poorly! The constant reoccurrance of the subject along with the inordinate influx of “British” paraphernalia over the past couple of years in the US (yes Keep Calm and Carry On posters, I’m looking at you) has given me some food for thought. Language is special because it is passed down through your family and is most often deeply rooted in a unique culture. Idioms in some regions have evolved there for centuries. They’re not just words or phrases, they’re a birthright. They are nuanced — like an accent — in that if you don’t grow up hearing them, you will probably never use them exactly as they are meant to be used. They’re highly contextual. I’m willing to bet that even a Glaswegian couldn’t give you a hard and fast rule on when they would use “wee” and when they would use “little” in a sentence. Even if they could, you can start asking for a cuppa and pushing your baby in a pram, but that doesn’t make you any more of a Brit or a Celt than the next Kentuckian wearing a “Kiss me I’m Irish” shirt.

Something that I think is fairly safe to say about being Celtic is that it cannot be learned and it cannot be lost — for better or for worse. If you’re born a Celt, you die a Celt, no matter where you live. And if you’re not a Celt, you never will be one. That’s not intended to be harsh. It is, after all, coming from a fair-skinned, red-headed midwesterner who had bagpipes and kilts at her wedding. But I’m an American, from Michigan (correctly pronounced with a nasal-y tone).

There are cultural identites scattered around The United Kingdom that are much deeper than the nationality assigned to them on their passport. I think this can be a difficult concept to grasp for Americans like myself whose family cultural identity has morphed over a few generations into an indistinguishable Western-European blend. That’s not to say our families are no longer influenced by those ancestors or that we don’t have our own identities. We are, and we do. But we’re like the Taco Bell of Mexican food… we’re Western European “inspired”, but really we’re American.1

Don’t get me wrong, there are lots of fun things about dating and marrying someone from a place that is different than where you grew up, even if just for the fact that it makes stories and life that much funnier. One of my favorite stories that Sid’s mom has told me from his childhood is that when he was about one and half years old his aunt was trying to rock him to sleep and saying in a soft, soothing, voice, “wheesh-a-bye, wheesh-a-bye…” Sid looked up, unimpressed with a scowling little face and said “awk, not that wheeshabye rubbish!” Also, I almost died laughing the first time I heard Sid order a croissant in a coffee shop.

Now that we have a little boy, I love hearing Sid talk to him, calling him a “cheeky wee monkey” and all the rest. But I love it because it’s his. I love it because Sid is imitating the phrases his parents used with him, just as I imitate the phrases my parents used with me when I talk to our son. Our son will probably spend the first five years of his life before he goes off to an American kindergarten not knowing whether that thing in the freezer is a popsicle or an ice lolly. And that’s fine, because to him it will be both. I’m certainly not going to “correct” him or insist that he use American phrases. He will use the words that seem natural and inherent to him; the ones he learns from his parents.

I know my speech pattern has changed, as has Sid’s, since we’ve been married. That happens when you live together, and neither one of us are trying to fight it. But there are some words that would just never be in my vocabulary without my noticing. Calling a popsicle an ice lolly will never just happen! Saying something is awesome or great will always be more natural to me than calling something brilliant. I’ll never be able to say croissant the French way without laughing.

Admittedly, I have never lived in Glasgow. The way you speak does become somewhat different after you live somewhere for a long time. You do have to adapt some new vocabulary simply to be understood, and I think sometimes you purposefully change your vocabulary to avoid the snarky remarks and dull, unoriginal jokes that people freely dish out to someone with an accent (although I think this is more prevalent when people from the UK come to the US and not as much vice-versa).

It’s good to recognize that part of what makes certain dialects, or accents so wonderful and interesting is that they are the story of that person, and they tell us a little bit about a person’s family and history without them having to say anything about it.

Fellow Americans: Tell your own story. Be true to that story, even if it is from the boring old Midwest. People don’t want you to be them. They want you to be you.

  1. Taco Bell is delicious and anyone who pretends they don’t like it is almost guaranteed to be a closet fourth meal glutton.