I’m American by birth, English by accent and face an awful lot of criticism for it. I was once detained in a horrible little room at JFK airport because my accent and passport didn’t ‘match’ and I was questioned about false documentation before being brought to tears because I thought I was going to be arrested. That was the most unusual experience. Other than that, I often get odd looks when I speak about my history and my parents very much do not like that we sound unrelated.
I grew up in Canada, the States, and Europe—with a BrE-speaking mother and Oxford-educated Canadian father. Our library had books in American, British, and Canadian English, and French. I don’t know how to describe my family’s English. I call it “mid Atlantic,” but it’s truer to say we’re used to different Englishes—just as everybody does, we generate ontologies and use new language wherever we go.
One day I was talking with BrE speakers about a teacher who’d told students “gotten” was the past participle of “get.” Shocking,” said one. “Ouch,” said another. “No excuse,” said a third.
But I’d heard people from England, Scotland, and Ireland say “gotten.” Hearing this, one of the BrE speakers said that I “must be mingling in very different circles.” She wasn’t talking about a suffix. And the oddest remark? That if my family was “swapping” from AmE to BrE, some “contamination” was likely.
I was on a panel about technology and entertainment at South by Southwest – after, I was approached by someone who said ‘I’ve never heard anyone who sounds like you talk so well about those things’. I had versions of that happen regularly during phone interviews.
When I was 16 years old, I was an exchange student to Germany for a year. I’m American. One of the classes I was taking was English literature. It was early on in the school year, I didn’t know many people. The class was reading the Grapes of Wrath. The teacher was a non-native English speaker but spoke British English. One day we took turns reading from the book aloud. After I read, the teacher said, ‘Too bad you butchered it with your American accent’. It was Steinbeck! But at the time I didn’t stick up for myself.
I had to raise an issue with higher management in a big multinational because they said we couldn’t speak any language other than English while on shift (illegal) and that we would lose bonuses or get fired if we did (highly illegal). They even dared to put it in writing and send an email stating ALL of it. Of course, they had to back down. But out of a team of 50-60 people (90% foreigners), nobody else was brave enough to complain. Not even foreign managers.
My girlfriend at uni (now wife) admitted that she didn’t believe I’d really got 4 As at A level because of how stupid I sounded with my Yorkshire accent. I had to show her the certificates in the end.
I remember a kid in the PRU I worked in telling me I talked like a “posh gay nonce”
My current headteacher told the rest of SLT that she’d rather I didn’t read out in assemblies due to my ‘flat Northern voice’. I insisted. Ever since, I’ve been told by teachers I do the best assemblies.
As a young academic I once had a student come up to me after a linguistics lecture and tell me they thought it disgraceful that someone with an accent like mine could teach at a university (I’m a Geordie for the record).