By Lucy Cheseldine
Upon purchase of a post office box, naturally, one expects to receive letters. So, this week has been one of correspondence. From my grandparents, I received what you might call a “vintage” letter, romancing the lost art. It was written on pale blue airmail paper, the paper they had found in a hidden drawer, dating back to 1926. I almost didn’t want to open the delicate thing for fear of it flaking into a thousand tiny pieces.
My grandparents embody the much coveted trait of English eccentricity, and their primary advice upon my arrival here was as follows, “The main thing to remember is, it’s a big country, with a north and a south and you are (I hope) in the south. Get a map if you’re not sure.” Always helpful if I fail to recognize my surroundings, which could become a genuine problem with the recent bouts of torrential rain.
The second and perhaps more practical parcel I received was my Kindle. I have never been a disciple of technology and have, for many years, refused to read from the Android and iPhone hymnbooks, but I have finally been won over by the ease of the e-reader. And now, with news at my fingertips, as they say, I feel much more connected to the world hiding behind the leafy suburbia of campus. Ironically, then, the tradition of the postal service has brought to my attention the benefits of modern technology. Upon this device asking me to choose between American and UK English, it has turned my eye to the linguistic differences here.
Recently, I visited dorms on campus and was greeted with a chorus of girls asking if I was faking my British accent. Not only this, but I have been stopped in the street by strangers who have overheard me talking and, literally running up to me, they question, “Are you really from England?”
“Yes. I can assure you I did not travel halfway across the world to fake an accent. I am, indeed, English,” I respond. It is this fascination with language and accent and how it connects which has been made so much clearer to me since my arrival here. I used to think of an accent as purely and simply a way of talking and have never really had much of an interest in the meaning behind it, other than the aesthetic quality. Yet, since arriving here and having become a token British kid, I have realized the way we talk embodies a whole culture and personality, which, to an outsider, is fascinating.
I, too, have felt this and can now begin to understand why it is marginally acceptable to point out to a foreigner that they speak differently from you. The Southern accent has always been one I have imitated over the dinner table at home, asking my “Momma” to “pass the salt, please,” drawing out the last syllables to a dramatic and slightly ridiculous extent. And so, to hear it in the flesh has been endlessly entertaining. But, not only do I hear a Southern accent, I hear an embodiment of football, fried food and farming, among, of course, the less stereotypical aspects of this culture. An accent is a keyhole into another way of life. Accent and speech don’t just evoke a sound, but a feeling and a sense of what your culture entails.
I am aware that shouting “Roll Tide” in the Queen’s English doesn’t manage to capture the full meaning of this cult phrase. Still, it’s best said by a Southerner. In reverse, to friends at home, when I say “hipster,” we think of SLR cameras and indie films. I asked my friend here what hipster connotes. “Doctor Who,” she told me. “Yeah, we’re a little different; no one watches that any more,” I replied.
The way we use that precious voice and language of ours can say much more than just where you come from. It works as a harmony of culture and difference. And, although I’m glad to have received word from the outside world, I’m beginning to absorb some of Alabama’s Morse code.
Lucy Cheseldine is an English International exchange student studying English literature.