Letter from London

by Sarah Brown


I’ve always been very susceptible to other people’s slang. If I make a new friend, a month later, I’ll have picked up at least one of their turns of phrase. This is more about my sponge-like love for language than any sort of Single White Female behavior, but I still try to keep it in check so as not to creep anyone out. This is why I was a bit nervous before moving to London. I can’t even watch Gosford Park without thinking in a British accent for a few hours afterwards; how was I going to keep myself from mimicking and offending everyone I met while immersed in it?

I had a friend in New York who lived in London for a few years during grad school. When I visited her in London, I noticed a definite change in the way she spoke. She wasn’t affecting any Madonna-like accent, but her cadence was different. Her sentences went up at the end; she’d finished questions with “yeah?” instead of “okay?” I knew she wasn’t doing it on purpose because when we overheard some fellow Americans in a restaurant, she rolled her eyes and said, “It’s so funny when people move here and suddenly sound like Gwyneth.”

My fiancé is English, and after living with him in New York for just a few months, I’d already picked up some of his slang. Not his accent; just certain words or phrases. If he’d been American, no one would have noticed, but since he was English, friends would tease me for saying “fuck all” instead of “nothing” or “I’m not too fussed about it” instead of “I don’t really care.” So when we moved to London last fall, I was hyper-vigilant about not sliding down that slope any further. To be fair, I can do a much better British accent than my fiancé can do an American one. I actually sound like the recorded female voice on the Underground, while he sounds a lot like Dustin Hoffman in Tootsie.

When I first moved from Oklahoma to New York seven years ago, people would ask me, “Where are you from again?” and when I’d answer, they’d say, “Oh yeah, I can tell by your Oklahoma accent.” This was always funny to me, because I don’t have an Oklahoma accent at all. My father was born in California, and my mother was born in Texas but raised in Canada. Neither my brother nor I have an accent, although we do both drop our Gs in -ing words. No one in my immediate family says y’all. Although once, when I was preparing to be on ABC Nightline, my mother warned me, “I don’t want to hear that Okie yeaaah come out of your mouth on national television!”

My first job in New York was a temp job at a construction company. My first week there, I was waiting at the copier with a man with fancy cufflinks and a crewcut.

“Where do you live?” he asked in a thick Jersey accent.

“Brooklyn,” I said.

“Nah ah ah,” he shook his head and wagged his finger. “Where are you from?”

I answered, “Oklahoma,” and he said, “Yeah, I thought you sounded like a hillbilly. No offense intended.” And I honestly don’t think he meant it rudely; I quickly learned that people who’ve always lived in New York can only differentiate between From Here and Not From Here. Now that I’m in England, no one could pick out my hometown in 100 guesses if I gave them a running headstart, and sometimes I wish I had a Sopranos extra to baffle again.

I’ve been in London for seven months now, and I’m proud to say I’ve held fast to my American English, much to my fiancé ‘s frustration. We have a lot of disagreements about spelling and pronunciation. His argument is always, “But my way is correct.” And often it is, but the rest of the time I have to explain to him that only moody, flowery poetry-writing American teenagers spell it colour or favourite. At the same time, I don’t want to go out of my way to be difficult while in a foreign country. If I’m ordering in a restaurant in England, I’ll ask the waitress for chips, but I’ll eat fries. If I’m helping our friends’ toddler get dressed, I’ll call her underwear pants and her pants trousers, but my sweater is never a jumper.

I’ve noticed recently that now when I’m asked where I’m from, I answer “New York.” Maybe this is because I know that if New Yorkers can’t find Oklahoma on a map, there’s no use trying with Londoners. Maybe it’s because I know I’ll get immediate cool points with whoever’s asking. Or maybe it’s because I’m missing my home of the past seven years, the place where I carved out my adult life all by myself. I think of New York as home now, but Oklahoma will always be where I was born and raised, and supported and encouraged enough to set out on my own. It’s a good place to come from.

Photo by Ferdi