Sometimes I feel like I’m stuck in that old joke – ‘It’s windy today, isn’t it? No, it’s Tuesday.’ Except that joke’s set in an old people’s home, whereas this one is set in Brooklyn.
I had only been here a week when my request for ‘tomartoes’ at the local farmers’ market was met with a baffled stare. I wouldn’t make that kind of schoolgirl error eighteen months down the line, and should have thought harder before opening my mouth back then, given it’s the most oft trotted-out example of differences in pronunciation between American and UK English. But at the same time, if an American asked me for tomaytoes, I like to think I could take a wild guess at what he meant. Much as I love most of the New Yorkers I mingle with, I do think on occasions they could have a more flexible ear.
Take the word ‘water’. Here, there is no ‘t’ in it. Unless you ask for ‘warder’, you will not get the drink you ask for. For self-professed Anglophiles who go weak at the knees and start slobbering whenever they hear an English accent, I find this strange. When they say ‘I love your accent! It’s so cool!’, do they actually mean, ‘I have no idea what you’re talking about, but I love the way you’re saying it!’?
If they don’t know what an English person is saying, Americans often just look bemused and stare, or ask again, hoping that next time you’ll say it with an American accent. On other occasions, they panic. Mr Applepip experienced this last week on a flight back to New York from LA. The air stewardess, having made her way down the aisle offering passengers a choice of snack – ‘cookies, chips or a healthy mix of fruit and nuts?, sir?’; ‘cookies, chips or a healthy mix of fruit and nuts, madam?’ – arrived at seat 25B and asked my husband the same question, for the 25th time on her journey: ‘cookies, chips or a healthy mix of fruit and nuts, sir?’ Now, bearing in mind she had a good idea of what he might say, there being only three possible responses, her reaction to his request defies belief. ‘A healthy mix of fruit and nuts, please,’ he said. She looked at him, startled, and said, ‘popcorn?’