Do you sound American yet?

australia-us-flag-montage-255Today is the 11th anniversary of my arrival in the United States. I still recall disembarking the plane back on September 4, 2004, with a dreadful cold, not knowing it was Labor Day, and battling crowds at the airport. The car rental company had even handed out the vehicle they had allocated to me…

I came here to become a Visiting Scholar at the University of California, Berkeley, and then I became a Researcher there until 2012. In 2009, I met the man who would become my husband and this year we had a baby. I was originally scheduled to stay here for one and a half years, but I have ended up staying here 11 years. So far.

This is a blog about language, so you must be wondering…do I sound American yet?

Well, my first question back to you is, what do Americans sound like? Australians have social accents but no regional accents, those are the accents that reveal where you might be from. Americans still have many regional accents. Georgians tend to speak with a Southern U.S. English accent, while Californians usually have a Western U.S. English accent. Of course, with migration and the homogenizing influence of the media, some of these accents are changing, diluting slowly, or even disappearing. Some linguists believe there are only a few regional accents around today, while others break them down into dozens of different accents. There is no single American English.

(For more information about U.S. English accents, check out the excellent PBS documentary Do You Speak American?)

UcyjMc1Has my accent changed? To my ear, it has. A salient aspect of American Englishes is that they are rhotic, that is, people pronounce their ‘r’s.

Australians do too for words like ring where the ‘r’ is word initial or carrot where it’s in the middle of the word, but not for words like computer, where the ‘r’ is word final (unless a vowel sound follows as in a phrase such as computer application). Australians use a schwa sound at the end of words instead (the first vowel sound heard in the word about).

I can hear more ‘r’s in my speech nowadays. Part of this is gradual, I’ve been living here for 11 years and am married to an American, while part of this is a deliberate convergence, because it makes it easier for me to be understood. My vowel sounds have mostly stayed the same, but these are the last sounds to change in cases like this.

I can hear these subtle differences in my accent, but they are imperceptible to many Americans who still hear me as Australian (if not English, New Zealand or South African. I’ve even been called Irish (!) or Scottish (!) but these accents are historically more closely related to U.S. English because they are also rhotic). When I’m back in Australia, people can tell that I’ve spent some times in the States.

Some people ask, why don’t you sound American yet? Developing a new accent is a process. A person could live in the U.S. for 20, 30, 40 years or even longer and still not acquire the accent. It’s dependent upon factors such as convergence (trying to acquire it), divergence (trying not to acquire it) or other influences (such as living with people who speak the first accent).

My husband interviewed me for his podcast back in 2009. He listened to this episode recently and said that my accent has changed a lot since that time. If you’re really interested, you might listen to a 2009 episode of Monster Talk and compare my accent with a show from this year.

Accent isn’t the only way people speak American. I’ve found that I’ve converged towards American English when it comes to dialect (vocabulary and grammar) to be understood. To this end, I use American terms, such as trunk instead of boot, gas instead of petrol, cookie instead of biscuit, biscuit instead of scone, and sweater instead of jumper. With a newborn baby I say diapers instead of nappies, stroller instead of pram, and pacifier instead of dummy. That is, outside of the home. My husband had converged towards me and uses the Australian English at home.

Differences can also be misconstrued as taboo or offensive across dialects because of their different meanings, such as Australian English thong (which means flip-flops, not a g-string), plunger (a French press, not a toilet plunger), rubber (an eraser, not a condom) and fanny (let’s put it this way, it doesn’t mean bottom).

I also favor (favour) American English orthography (spelling) in my writing nowadays. I tend to use -or for words like color (colour), a single “l” in words like jewelry (jewellery) and “z” in words like analyze (analyse). I also tend to use U.S. metric terms here, such as mile instead of kilometre (kilometer) but I can’t ever seem to get the hang of Fahrenheit. I wish the U.S. would finally adopt the metric system…

So, do I sound American yet? Yes and no. I’m a unique blend of my past and present influences, as we all are.

Posted in: Uncategorized
Karen Stollznow

About the Author:

Dr. Karen Stollznow is a linguist and researcher. She is the author of the best-selling book God Bless America. Her other titles include Hits & Mrs., Language Myths, Mysteries and Magic, Would You Believe It? and Haunting America. Her forthcoming book is On the Offensive: Prejudice in Language Past and Present.

4 Comments on "Do you sound American yet?"

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  1. Iain Davidson says:

    If you are going to say anything to anyone about fannies always ask if they want a cookie first. Oh dear, that may sound like offering lollies to kiddies.

  2. I once saw a lingerie shop in San Luis Obispo, CA, called “Fanny Wrappers”!

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