Host – Nicholas Carlie – Host
Bella – from Salisbury, England
Raj – from Boston, USA
Anne - Anne Dahl, professor at NTNU
The English language – in Salisbury England and Boston USA
Host: Hi, my name is Nicholas and I'm a former journalist for NRK. I was born in Belgium to Swedish parents who raised me in over 20 countries in Europe, Asia and South America. English is not my mother tongue. English is not my native language, and I didn't live in an English-speaking country until I was 16 years old. English is, however, my first language. But I often wonder, what is English? Why can I hear the difference between an Australian, a Londoner, a Bostonian or an African all sharing a common language? The English language has approximately four hundred million native speakers worldwide and is recognised as the single most widely spoken global language. In this podcast, we will explore the nuances of English accents and pronunciation, together with five native speakers from all over the globe and a Norwegian professor of this strange and wonderful global language. Who knows, maybe I'll learn something new about my first language.
Host: Today I will be speaking to Bella from England and Raj from the U.S. Let's get into this, first of all, ladies first. Bella, tell me where you are from specifically, please.
Bella: So, I'm from the city of Salisbury, which is in Wiltshire, and it's quite a rural county in southwest England. It's also not too far from London. Maybe an hour and a half on the train.
Host: Raj, I'm going to jump over to you now. Tell me where you are from in the United States.
Raj: So, I come from Boston, more specifically Cambridge, which for those of you that aren't familiar with it, is where Harvard and MIT are. That's mostly what I get recognized for. I'm from the small state of Massachusetts, one of the most historically old states in the US. The largest city closest to us other than Boston would be New York, which is four hours south.
Host: There is a very distinctive Boston accent, which I don't hear in you. What's the story behind your dialect?
Raj: Yes, the reason I don't have a Bostonian accent is because I primarily learned English from my parents who don't have a Bostonian accent, and I've only lived in Boston for five years. That being said, I mean, I don't think the Boston accent is by any means rampant in Boston. It's not like everybody is going around with a Boston accent. But you do learn a bit from it. Like there's the classic: "paak the caa' in the haa'vard yaard" = park the car in the Harvard yard.
Host: Exactly. Yeah. Those I recognize. Yeah.
Raj: We always have a bit of an interesting lexicon; ‘the bubbler’, ‘the clicker’, ‘the wiffle’. But yeah, I wouldn't say that it's as used in Boston as many would think it is, but you definitely hear it every now and then.
Host: Quite heavily represented in especially gangster movies, in my case. Bella, is there anything about your dialect that another English person could pick up quickly and kind of point to your geographical origin?
Bella: Yeah. I think if someone listened to how I was speaking, they probably assume I was from London or somewhere in southern part of England. I don't have a traditional accent from the Southwest because there are so many nuances in accents and dialects in England. People would probably pick up on a veering towards a standard English type of accent - elongating the /r/ and pronouncing /t/ on the end of words ... And trying to pronounce things slightly more fully than skipping letters or skipping /t/ in the middle, things like that. So, I'd say that's all they kind of pick up on you.
Host: So, nobody from Salisbury would say ‘bu'a’ (for ‘butter’)? Would they say ‘buttha’?
Bella: I don't think you'd find many people saying ‘bu'a’ in Salisbury, no.
Host: Am I wrong in suspecting that it's a sort of a posh English?
Bella: I think some of my friends from different areas in the country would point me out as the posh one in the group at times. And I don't like it when they say that, but I think that my accent can veer towards that at times, because of the differences. Not many people speak with Received Pronunciation, which is what the Queen's English is. And it’s what people who are trying to imitate English accent, might sound like. A very refined portion of the population talk like that, I think. But when it comes to posh, you could probably say that. I mean, I prefer ‘well spoken’ ...
Host: Well, then we'll use well-spoken, which you certainly are. It's a very clear dialect. There's not a lot of local slang and stuff coming in. But would that be something that would pop up if you were speaking to somebody from the same street that you come from?
Bella: I can't say I use much slang. I mean, at school. Yeah, sometimes we use words like ‘peng’ to describe something really nice. Or you might say "that's such a good fit." about an outfit. I don't really use that, but it varies. I use them for fun sometimes, not in a serious way. There are some things that are just trends that I think in general everyone will say. They just go around in the media and people all over the country are using these trendy words that I mentioned, such as ‘that's lit’ and ‘goat’. But I kind of do it in a jokingly way, I think.
Host: I see, thank you. Raj, are there things in your English that other Americans would pick up on and know about your social status or your geographical origin?
Raj: Yeah, I don't think that the way I speak or my accent might give away that I'm from Boston, but I definitely think that some of the expressions or idioms I use might convey that I'm from New England. So, if I said something like ‘bang a yu'i’ for someone that takes a U-turn …
Bella: You definitely would not say that in the UK, ‘bang’ has a different meaning...
Host: All right! The fascinating thing about this is that it is the same language. It has the same origin. But at the same time, just a simple word, like ‘bang’, can mean completely different things across the pond. Are there more examples of this, possibly even things that put you in a situation where you have to scramble to get out of it? Have you experienced using certain American or Bostonian words in England or with English people that were misunderstood?
Raj: Oh, there's definitely some Bostonian slang that I use that probably goes a bit questioned, but I don't feel like I've ever been in jeopardy to the point where I need to clarify myself and be like; “that's not what I meant”. But someone might say "the bubbler" instead of a drinking fountain, those water fountains that you go for at school, or "a clicker" instead of a remote control.
Host: Have you experienced tripping over a local word abroad, Bella?
Bella: I've experienced people not understanding certain words I'm using because of the English I speak, not in a negative way. I might say, “Where's the loo?", and when I say that I'm asking, "Where's the toilet?". But people don't generally get that. Or some Brits might be looking for ‘booze’ and they might ask; "Oh, is there booze shops around here?", referring to alcohol. I don't feel like I've got into trouble with these things, but I don't know … if people are saying things like ‘bloody’. That's just quite a colloquial slang phrase. It's not that bad. You could say, "Oh, that was bloody brilliant", and people wouldn't see it that badly. But if you say that somewhere else, then they might think; “Oh, why are they using that word?” But we kind of say it in more of a triumphant sense, I think.
Host: Do you think, Raj, that if you were to speak to someone who wasn't a local, would you adapt your English? Would you drop all of your local phrases? And are there prejudices towards these local Boston accents, do you think, in other parts of the States?
Raj: I don't think I've ever spoken with a very extreme Boston dialect, but I definitely use a bit of American slang. Especially coming to this boarding school where there are people from all around the world … there were a lot of times when I talked and people were like; “There were five words in that sentence that I didn't understand”. So now I've kind of corrected the way I speak English to the point where I don't use any of this American slang. And I came back to the US over winter break and people were telling me: "Oh, you speak so different now", and I was like "Yeah, that's because I was bullied for three months for speaking American slang". So now I don't use American slang anymore.
Host: So, you're slowly cleaning it out of your daily use?
Raj: I think so. I'm still very American in the way I talk. I think I just don't use any Bostonian slang. I was looking through general Bostonian slang, and I was like; "oh my God, it's been ages since I've ever said ‘bang a yu'I’. Or ‘pisser’. I don't use those words anymore.
Bella: Yeah, you do like them.
Host: You're still getting a giggle out of Bella. What is your impression of Bella's dialect? Does that tell you anything about her or make you create a certain image of her or where she could be from?
Raj: Well, if I'm being completely honest, I don't really have a great sense of geographical knowledge of dialects in the UK, so I will admit that when I heard her dialect for the first time, I thought that that was a very interesting British accent, but I didn't read too much into it.
Bella: Interesting. What's interesting, Raj?
Host: Intriguing, maybe?
Raj: Yeah, intriguing. There you go. Get me in a little less trouble. But I didn't read too much into it. I do subconsciously think that it is a bit posh, but it's in a very reserved part of my mind.
Host: We mean well spoken, of course, Bella.
Raj: Yes. Well spoken, that's what I meant.
Bella: Sure. Sure.
Host: What about you, Bella? I mean, even just listening to Raj and listening to me, does it paint a picture of who we could possibly be, what kind of guys we are, where we could be from?
Bella: That's an interesting one, because I think for me, I find it quite hard. I didn't really know there was much difference in the American accent, depending on where you were from, maybe Texas as opposed to somewhere like California. So, when I hear your accent, I would just think it is an average male American accent to have. And I remember as a child when I was growing up, my sisters and I used to always try and imitate American accents for fun.
Host: Give me an example, please.
Bella: Oh, really? OK, we used to say things like "Oh my God, that's totally awesome. Like, Karen. Oh, my God.". Things like that. We used to play around. I think the Brits tend to see themselves as a bit ‘hardy’. We have a darker, wittier sense of humour. Americans just don't get our humour, you know.
Host: OK, guys, I'm going to throw some words at you here, which are famous for meaning two different things. And it will be cool if you guys had some examples as well. But Bella, are ‘pants’ pants?
Bella: Oh, no! I was talking to Raj about this as well. That's one thing I found awkward, everyone was like "Oh, I love your pants and "Those are such cool pants", and I was like, “Well, you can't see my pants right now”. This is kind of concerning, because ‘pants’ for us is underwear. It's not trousers, trousers are jeans. That's what Americans call ‘pants’. But yeah, like I said, ‘pants’ for us is the thing beneath the trousers.
Host: What about ‘chips’, Raj? What are ‘chips’ to you?
Raj: Oh, like Pringles or Lay's. Crunchy potato things.
Host: And Bella?
Bella: Chips are what we get in the pub, and they are fat fried potato-fingers, and you dip them in ketchup.
Host: All right. So, if Raj asked for ‘chips’, he would get French fries. And if you came and you asked for ‘crisps’, then you would get something else entirely again.
Bella: I mean, ‘crisps’ for us is salted crisps, like Lay's or Pringle's.
Host: Thank you to Bella from Salisbury and Raj from Boston. Let's once again check in with Anne Dahl, Associate Professor from the Department of Language and Literature at NTNU and talk about British English and American English. Hello again! How are you today?
Anne: Hi! I'm good, thank you.
Host: So British English and American English have many, many dialects. Let's focus on Bella first. She is to me a great example of a classic form of British. I mentioned the word posh, she preferred well-spoken. Might Bella’s variant of English be a sort of ambassador of proper English?
Host: Well, I think it's what many people see as an ambassador for proper English. I would say it's more of an ambassador for a relatively standard British English, which isn't any more proper than any other English. British English, that's just not one thing. But when we talk about British English and when we compare it to American English, we very often think of a variety of British English similar to hers.
Host: Yes, she was quite aware of how her English is perceived. Do you think it communicates a form of class?
Host: Sure. I mean, Britain is still, you know, a country where class is important in a way that it isn't, for example, in Norway. And your dialect and your accent definitely gives away your class. So, even if you're speaking a regional dialect, then it's very likely that you will still also speak a more standard variety of English, or maybe only the standard variety. Compared to Norway, for example, regional dialects are more connected to lower class, working class. And it's not as common to stick to your dialect where you're from, the way that it is in Norway.
Host: We also spoke to Raj. Now he's from Boston, but didn't have a clear Boston accent. The accent has a certain vowel sound, as we know from popular culture, which he didn't have, but he did use some Boston slang. What is it about the Boston accent that makes us able to place it geographically?
Host: Yeah, so they do have these weird vowels. And again, I'm not a speaker of Bostonian English at all, but they have this classic thing where they talk about "paak the caa", and they have a slightly different vowel-type than most Americans. And that's one of the few places in the US where you can specifically talk about a dialect in a city in the US. That's not very common. But of course, Boston is one of the first places that developed as a city in the US, so there was time for a separate dialect to develop. So, if anyone watches the old show Cheers, Cliff, the character who plays the mailman, has a very strong accent like this. And also, someone like Mark Wahlberg, who is from Boston often uses that dialect in his movies, at least when the character is supposed to be from Boston.
Host: Boston is one of the oldest cities in the States, so I'm wondering how do these local accents come to be? Has a certain demographic influenced it?
Host: I think so, probably. While the US was still 13 colonies, there were basically two main centres English speaking populations: One was in the Boston area and the other one was in the south. In those two communities, people came from different places in the UK and also interacted with different locals. Immigration was also different. So, for example, Boston has had a really large group of Irish immigrants. There are a lot of Irish Americans in Boston which you just don't find in the same way in the south. Whereas in the south, there was more contact with other languages, because there was slave trade there. But also, people came there with a different dialect to begin with, because there were different people there.
Host: Would you have the same identity issues or class issues in the US as in the UK?
Host: To some extent. I mean, the US is completely different in terms of class. It doesn't have that old class system that Britain does.
Host: We also had a lot of fun discussing some words that sounds the same, but mean completely different things. Like ‘pants’, for example. Can you say something about how these words come about? I mean, they're both clothing, but they are different pieces of clothing.
Host: They're very different pieces of clothing. But I think it's important that they are actually still similar words. They're not completely different, because they are not just a piece of clothing, but they're a piece of clothing that covers the lower part of your body. ‘Chips’ is another example, right? It still means literally a ‘chip’ - a small piece - in both the US and the UK, and they mean a small piece of potato. It's just that they don't really agree on how big the piece and whether it's crispy or not. But they're still clearly, obviously related words.
Host: Thank you again so much for your time, professor Anne Dahl.