Ex-Pat Living: Divided By Common Language, Even In America

Yesterday I wrote about some issues with multi-cultural touchstones those iconic items that are unique to, or so strongly linked to one country that when someone says the name or shows you a photograph, you instantly know where it’s from. Like kilts and Scotland. Or, like the scones I wrote about yesterday that I’m wanting to make.

Today I want to turn the tables on America for all who are reading this from abroad. Let’s have a go at the Yanks for a change!


For our friends who have been to America, or learned “English” abroad thinking it might help you navigate a vacation in the United States, only to be confounded by colloquialisms that weren’t in your study packets, welcome to our world!

I love language… not just learning new foreign languages like Russian, Turkish, French or Spanish which have served me well in my expatriate life, but also the dialects and variations within languages. And we have many!

When our exchange students in Baku came back from America, I knew that Seva had come back from someplace in or very near Minnesota by her very round o’s (as in the way she said Minn-a-soow-da), just as I could identify Sabina as having been to Ala-BAM-a (versus a Russian speaker’s usual equally-stressed Ahla-bahm-a and pu-doh-mac or po-do-mack pronunciations of Potomac [it’s more like pu-Toe-mek]).

So you can imagine my  interest and curiosity when I saw this item in the news this week. The “Today” show on NBC, one of our popular morning news and information talk shows broadcast across the nation on a major network, had an interesting guest, Cornell University sociologist Scott Golder.

What does your dialect say about you? Take the New York Times quiz to see what your pronunciations mean.

Which America Are You From?

Mr. Golder spoke about how language across America divides us and identifies us as products of a region or locality- just the same way that people in the UK can tell a Geordie accent from a Glaswegian, or that an Australian would differentiate Aussie speakers from Sa’thafrican speakers.

Expats traveling and living around the world can pick up their own kind in a crowd of voices and gravitate toward them to find out where they are from, how long they have been in country and more.

For those who enjoy this kind of linguistic fun, the Today Show gave us a window into what makes regional speakers unique. Click on the link to the video clip below to see how this works. There is also a link a little further down for you to take your own quiz, if you want to test your knowledge of American English!.

Tennis shoes, Sneakers or Trainers?  (http://www.today.com/video/today/53942587).

The concept for this quiz, created by the New York Times, is that from your own answers, it guesses where you’re from in the country (United States), based on your dialect.

I took this 25 question quiz and the results were pretty fascinating. Cornell University sociologist Scott Golder breaks down some examples and explains what the different pronunciations mean for our American culture.

Take The NY Times Language Quiz Yourself

Separated by a Common Language: How Can You Tell I'm From Texas? Linguistic markers for culture and ethnicity

How Can You Tell I’m From Texas?

My quiz results indicate I have picked up slang or colloquialisms from many parts of the country, some being related to my family history in Texas, but more common were the phrasings I picked up out west, and from California. No surprise since I lived on Naval bases there for much of my school years.

Some of the terms, I have to admit, even I had no clue what they were.  It turns out some were found in upstate Maine and the far northern New England area, but are used by enough people, that as a group it is prevalent. (“You lot“?)  Who knew?
Here’s another clever site that I thought was interesting. Gareth Jameson is part of London Voice Lessons and, in this series of clips, he shares what distinguishes several well-known accents from one another. For example, what makes the Irish sound different from Russian? (OK, that may a little too easy, but you get the idea.)

Click the link below and have a listen to your favorites.

Gareth Jameson, Accents and Dialects (Short video clips of several)

It’s all very entertaining, and may well help you identify accents and dialects of people the next time you’re on holiday!

And finally, a challenging rhyme.

It’s lengthy and you may get tripped up along the way, but if you make it through, you will have a greater empathy for our visitors who are trying to learn American English- and maybe even a bit more patience too!

Have a look here: English Words – Why It Actually Is Hard to Learn to Speak English Well

All in all, a fun way to spend some time on a chilly winter day for those of us up north-ish.

And, let’s see, for our friends south of the equator, where you’re no doubt basking in balmy summer weather, well let’s say this may be a good way to cool off, kick back, take a load off, do some chillaxin’!  (What’re your favorite terms for relaxing?)

Tell me,  what’d you think of these linguistic tools? Accurate, or not so much? Did you discover some new terms? I hope it gave you some new things to think about!

BTWIf this conversation makes you want to think about culture and language a bit further, here’s a tip for good read from Nelson DeMille, “The Charm School” (how the former Soviets sought to imitate Americans for nefarious purposes) I’d recommend it as an interesting diversion for any who may be into Cold War, espionage, intrigue, language and culture.

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