Within days of moving from my small hometown to university I became aware, for the first time in fact, that in the view of others I possessed an accent. It’d also never occurred to me that some of the expressions I’d grown up using didn’t translate across the region’s borders (much less across the Atlantic Ocean). My friends from farther north or west began to joke about my quaint Southern expressions like “Bless your heart,” “Goodness gracious,” or “For crying out loud.” I laughed along with them, but I also realized that as my world became larger, my language might need to adjust as well.
When I moved to the West Coast after graduation, I listened to Californian beach talk and was struck by how, apart from the actual words, the talk wasn’t that different from the hunting talk back home. Just as a surfer might say “hell of a rip” or that a wave was “was totally epic” to convey pleasure, Virginian hunters said something along the lines of “Good gawd almighty” or “Hot damn! I’ve done shot me a buck.” A sign of belonging to a particular group is in being able to talk the talk. Not that I started talking like a surfer, but while living in California I did think about what I said, particularly at work, to make sure that my West-Coast colleagues would understand.
After living in Prague for several years, I’ve found that my English had become notably less Southern, and I would venture to say, even less American, particularly when speaking English with Czechs who may have studied British English or other non-American English speakers. I’ve even discovered that my children are picking up British and Australian expressions from their bilingual friends. Anna occasionally says “nappy” and “wee” like her half-Welsh friend, and both my kids know what a “pram” is (which isn’t a word I’d normally use). We’ve read far fewer children’s stories with a Southern dialect than I’d like, although I recently brought back books from the US called, “When I was Young in the Mountains” and “When the Relatives Came,” both of which use language that’s similar to the style of speaking I grew up with.
When I first started dating Radek, I remember that he used to complain that I spoke differently when I was talking with him than I did when I was chatting on the phone or to my childhood friend who was also living in Prague. I argued that after speaking beginner-level English all day to Czechs who were just starting to learn English, I didn’t even notice the way I spoke with him. In truth however, I remember specifically selecting my vocabulary so that I wouldn’t have to spend our free time being his teacher. I wanted to get to know him, and the quickest way seemed to temporarily simplify my English so that we could have a flowing conversation. These days there is no doubt that Radek understands everything I say, except when his selective hearing tunes out requests for housework, something I don’t think any level of English training will alter.
Although it’s been seven years or so, I’ll never forget the first time Radek went to the hardware store to buy some 2×4 boards to help my father repair a fence. Since it was a small town store, the guys behind the counter knew my father by name, but try as they might, they couldn’t understand his new son in-law’s English. To hear Radek’s side of the story, the locals he was talking with might as well have not spoken English at all for all that he understood. Radek’s English was quite good by this time; he just wasn’t prepared for their thick, mountain accent.
Later, Radek and I lived in New Jersey, an hour or so from New York City, and there he found the northern accents far easier to understand than I did. While his Long Island colleagues said “a” like “ah,” similar to the way Czechs would pronounce it, I was used to hearing the long southern “a” that sounds like “ay.” We ran into far more Central European immigrants living in the Northern part of the US than we did during our time in the South, and their English tended to be along the same level as Radek’s, even if they’d been living in the States for years.
When teaching English in Prague, most of my textbooks and resource material used British English and grammar, so sometimes my verbal instructions sounded wildly different than those printed in the book. I used to have a fit with my advanced students over the intricacies of present and past perfect grammatical tenses, since spoken American English frequently uses only the simple past in a situation where British English would use one of the perfect tenses. I remember one of my Czech teacher friends was once reprimanded for teaching her classes some American terms instead of sticking to the British only textbook. In the end, I don’t think, especially for lower level language learners, that these differences are that great or even felt.
These days, I’m even having trouble keeping my English and my Czech straight. I realized a week after teaching an English class that I’d written “salat” (in Czech) not “salad” during a lesson. Although I knew that my beginner students wouldn’t likely notice the difference, I went back and corrected myself, much to their delight. The class then had a long discussion on the difference between the Czech word “salat,” meaning lettuce and “salad” in English, meaning a meal made from lettuce, vegetables and/or fruit. In the end, I think my students understood the difference, so I felt doubly pleased.
I remember coming back to Virginia for Christmas a number of years ago and reconnecting with one of my school mates who had been living in London. Throughout the evening, I couldn’t quite get over her English accent and her British expressions, and I kept wondering when she was going to stop the show and start speaking like she was from Southwest Virginia once again. Not surprisingly, she never did.
However, looking back on that night with some perspective gained from living abroad myself, I realize that although I’ve been able to become integrated into Czech culture by learning the Czech language, that’s essentially the same thing my friend did with her English. It might seem a little out of place hearing her speak like a Londoner in the middle of the Appalachian mountains, but on the other hand, imagine the alternative for her – sounding like a foreigner even though she’d lived in London for years. I hope my friend never forgets her roots; I doubt she will. But I’m glad that she’s been able to find a language that helps her fit in because I know how hard it is to live away from your native culture and feel like an outsider on top of it.
I’m thankful for all the Southernisms that are still ingrained in my speech. However, I find no harm in choosing more international versions of a word to make sure that my audience understands me. Even while writing this article, I found a great website with Southern expressions which I shared with Radek. Afterward, he left the room, saying in perfect Southern form, “I’m fixin’ to get to bed now. G’night.”