A couple of days ago I got on the phone to organizers of other writing groups in the Surrey–Hampshire area, trying to drum up interest in a joint effort at publicity. My first call started in confusion and only got worse:
“Where did you say you got my name, again?”
“Your group’s web site. Your writing group.”
“I don’t belong to a group like that.”
“Oh! I beg your pardon. Um, but it does say ‘The Art of Writing’, with your name.”
“And this number.”
“Oh, dear. I think there’s been some dreadful mistake.”
“I’m sorry. But maybe…that is, do you happen to know who’s in charge of the group now?”
“Well… I don’t know. What kind of horses are you interested in?
It was my accent. I grew up in the bluegrass region of Kentucky (though they didn’t let the likes of me get anywhere near the thoroughbreds); she grew up in England. I said writing; she heard riding.*
A drama student who tends bar at one of the pubs on my normal flight path (the Seahorse in Shalford, if you want to know) tells me that in drama school here, they’re taught a generic American accent and a generic American Southern accent. I don’t think it’d be polite to point out that there’s no such thing as a generic American accent and there are any number of different Southern accents, too, so I don’t. I’d be very surprised if American drama schools did any better than that at teaching British accents; from what I can tell, there are as many different British regional accents as there are American regional accents, even though the UK is only a little more than twice the size of Kentucky.
That drama students learn a generic US accent explains a thing or two about what I hear on the radio. You get actors in dramas (we have excellent spoken-word radio here) who are meant to be playing Americans, but who sound at times as if they’re from Wisconsin, and at other times in the same program/programme as if they’re from Virginia. Or less often, you hear actors whose speech bears no identifiable relation to anything I’ve ever heard, anywhere in the USA.
And then there’s the case of the intrusive R. The British seem sometimes to save those Rs they don’t pronounce at the end of words (supah for super, ka for car) so that they can tack them onto the ends of words that don’t have an R in the first place; I’m already tired of hearing Obama called President Obamer, and I once came in on a radio broadcast I couldn’t understand at all until I figured out that what I heard as career actually meant Korea. Some American accents do include the intrusive R, but when you get that R mixed into the speech of an actor trying to sound like he’s from, say, Texas, it falls very oddly on my American ear.
Then again, sometimes you get extremely accomplished actors with very convincing American accents and you can even think you’re listening to an American actor until the speaker falls foul of a tiny exception to an otherwise valid rule—which brings us back to the T pronounced as D. While it’s true that Americans don’t pronounce a T anywhere near as crisply as the British do, even so, we do leave some Ts alone. A supposedly American character in a BBC Radio 4 drama the other day was exposed when he got to a line about something that happened in 1939. Now, it’s a big country, and perhaps some Americans somewhere say ninedeen for nineteen, but I’ve never come across one. And even though we don’t say ninedeen, most do say thirdy-nine andninedy-three. The poor actor needed to keep in mind that what most Americans would actually say is nineteen thirdy-nine.
(I haven’t looked at this in detail, but I’m guessing the N in front of the T makes the difference. We say antique, not andique, for example, and untried, not undried. I’m sure a linguistics scholar somewhere has already figured this out, probably a century ago, and formulated a multisyllabic name for the rule.)
It’s practically impossible, I think, to defuse all of the pronunciation landmines for a British actor playing an American on the radio (although it wouldn’t cost much to hire an American to listen to the cast during just one rehearsal, and correct their slips, and I’m available). As for me, fortunately I don’t have to say anything for broadcast, and I’ve learned to modify what I say over the phone. When I have to give out some number—phone, credit card, National Insurance (that’s like Social Security)—I take care to alter the way I say five and nine so that my Kentucky I vowel doesn’t throw the person at the other end.
But I’d never encountered confusion over writing and riding. Now that I’m aware of the problem, I’ll watch for it. And the conversation gave me a great idea for a new hobby, perhaps even a new art form: horseback writing.
* Even though, like most Americans, I turn the T of writing into a D when I pronounce writing, the words writing and riding sound different to me. In my Kentucky accent, the first I of writing gets a diphthong and sounds like the more mainstream American I, while riding gets a monophthong, the long I that people associate with the American South. I was in my thirties before someone asked me why I pronounced the I in bike differently from the I in bicycle, and I stopped to think about it; turns out it’s controlled by whether a voiced or voiceless consonant follows the vowel, and is a phenomenon well-known to, well, to the kind of people who study such things.