Quite recently, after a long period in which I must have heard it many times, I learned the American term glassa wodda.
I have a waitress at a local restaurant to thank for this, for she repeatedly asked “What?” or “What did you say?” when I asked for something so commonplace that it was not even listed on the menu. I asked for a glass of water. Maybe I said “glahss” and “wawtuh,” but I didn’t perceive these as odd pronunciations, though God knows I have tried to learn to speak American for decades and at times even fooled myself into believing I had succeeded.
These days at restaurants I always ask for a glassa wodda, and it always works.
This episode reminded me of the time when, as a boy during an earlier American incarnation, in Florida, I joined a group of boys who were test-driving a brand new, red Radio Flyer wagon. “Can I have a go?” I asked, and they understood. “Sure, you can be the moda.” I didn’t realize what they meant until one of my new friends commanded, “C’mon, push!” I was delegated to be their rear-mounted motor.
I should have considered myself forewarned, and taken a class in the American language. Here’s another story. I reported for work to start a new job in New Mexico the day after a night flight from London. After my first day’s work, and not having bought a car, I stood on the curb at a place that I had been told was a bus stop, though oddly it was not marked as such. A young woman was already standing there, so I asked her to confirm that this was indeed the place. “Excuse me but could you tell me, is this the bus-stop?” She asked me to repeat the question, and I did that, identifying the bus route I wanted to take. She looked at me for two or three seconds. “You’re puttin’ that on,” she said resentfully, and moved away. Later I reasoned that she may have thought I was using this strange accent because I wanted to sit with her on the bus and try to pick her up. Mercifully the bus arrived soon and we sat as far from each other as we could.
As Winston Churchill said, “an Englishman speaking his mother tongue is thought to be affected and giving himself airs.”
I was able to put my sensitivity about Churchill’s warning to rest this month, thanks to a gentleman by the name of Henry Avery, the much-talented executive and artistic director of Albuquerque Little Theater, in New Mexico. Avery invited me to be dialect coach for his production of Michael Frayn’s Noises Off! I was to meet regularly with his cast, all of whom had some idea of the differences between English and American usages of their common language, albeit with different levels of expertise. My job was to supplement their speaking skills with what I called an approximation of Basic BBC English Pronunciation. (This would not be a dialect, which like Cockney is regional in nature, but something originally intended as a standard for all England.)
Naturally I agreed, for not only had the show paralyzed me with laughter when saw it in London but now I could explain my personal ideas on how to pronounce words like water and motor, and insist that my little coterie of actors pay respect to the ticking “T,” subdue the overused “R,” and pronounce each syllable as precisely as they knew how (while inexplicably dropping the “o” in lavatory and laboratory). Of course I got my proverbial knickers in a twist because even “proper” English has few rules that do not remain unbroken for long. To make it worse, there were substantial differences between this standardized English and my family dialect in West Yorkshire. But then there is no single formula for producing English-type English. Hence the approximation.
One problem word was “can’t.” And words that included -ew or -ume sounds needed special care too because the vowel needed to rhyme with “yew,” “volume,” and “few.” We also had fun with names. One of the characters is called Dotty, another Poppy, so I complained that these two very feminine women should not be landed with the incontestably male nicknames Daddy and Pappy. It would have been easier to deal with names like Cholmondeley, pronounced Chumley; Bicester, pronounced Bister; or Magdalen College, pronounced Maudlin College. But they weren’t in the script.
It was a treat to listen as these local actors learned their sounds as well as their lines and blocking, and to hear them onstage. When thanked for my help I gave them a heartfelt response for providing me with such a thoroughly rewarding experience.
People on both sides of the Atlantic have long been amused and bemused by the differences between American and British uses and usages of the English language – as they are by differences in the dialects common to certain regions of their own nations. In The Canterville Ghost, Oscar Wilde wrote that “We [English] have really everything in common with America nowadays, except, of course, language.” Less gently, but in truth, the modern-day writer and gaming specialist James Nicoll wrote in “The King’s English” that “The problem with defending the purity of the English language is that English is about as pure as a cribhouse whore. We don’t just borrow words; on occasion, English has pursued other languages down alleyways to beat them unconscious and rifle their pockets for new vocabulary.” (Or, in my opinion, the language contains such a huge selection of words that it permits ideas to be expressed more briefly than other languages, with less chance of misinterpretation.)
I much prefer another Churchill quotation, from a speech delivered at Harvard in 1943: “The gift of a common tongue is a priceless inheritance and it may well some day become the foundation of a common citizenship.”
(This blog returns after several months in which your writer has traveled to Hawaii, India, and England, battled a series of unnamable virus infections, pursued several book ideas – and enjoyed himself thoroughly as a dialect coach for a fine director and a troupe of very talented local actors.)