Posted by: scribe9 | August 15, 2010

Which English?

This morning my church tried something new for announcements. Instead of having the pastor or some other human read them, they were flashed on the screen as a disembodied voice read them.

The announcements were nothing out of the ordinary. New starting time for youth group, please return things to the office during office hours, that sort of thing. So my Icelandic friend and I were puzzled when people kept laughing. It wasn’t until after the service that we found out why. The church could only get a North American computerized voice, and the New Zealanders found it funny to have their little local announcements read with a foreign accent. My friend and I never noticed. She had spent a year in New Jersey, and her elder daughter speaks with an excellent American accent thanks to TV and movies. It didn’t dawn on me that I was having no trouble deciphering the announcements.

A British woman came up to us at tea hour (yes, they serve coffee, but the vast majority drink tea, with milk already in it), and said she was having trouble placing our accents. She thought I might be Canadian, but was hesitant to say so in case she was wrong. I assured her that I can’t always tell who’s Canadian and who’s American, so I ask, “What part of North America are you from?” And my question for those who speak an English I can’t identify (I can’t always tell the difference among Kiwis, Aussies and South Africans) is, “Where in the Commonwealth are you from?”

The variety of accents is particularly hard on those for whom English isn’t a first language. Add to that the variety of idioms, and it’s astonishing how well they do.

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