Recently I wrote about how Americans give away their backgrounds with a word choice. (Word of the Week – doodlebug.) At the grocery store, do you put your food in a bag (East)? Or a sack (everyone else except the South)? In the South you might carry groceries in a “poke.” Think of buying “a pig in a poke.” You wouldn’t know its true value if you didn’t take it out of the sack and inspect it.
These word choices indicate broad geographical divisions in America, but what about accent and pronunciation? In Pygmalion, Professor Higgins claimed he could place any man in London within two miles as soon as he heard his voice. Aside from the unintelligible Cockney, we know from Masterpiece Theater the Brits speak a language different from American English, even though it might be spelled the same. Bill Bryson’s delightful book, The Mother Tongue, has plenty to say on the subject, as follows.
My Yorkshire friend confirms that, despite the fact that Bradford and Leeds have grown right together, a local can tell which city a speaker is from. Within an eight mile area, the villages of Kintbury, Boxford and Cold Ash use different words, respectively, greatcoat, topcoat and overcoat. Besides the rich mix of regional dialects, English speech is also very much influenced by class and social standing. George Bernard Shaw wrote, “It is impossible for an Englishman to open his mouth without making some other Englishman despise him.”
An Australian who used the pen name “Afferbeck Lauder,” dubbed the upper class English dialect “fraffly,” based on his translation of “Weh sue fraffly gled yorkered calm.” It means of course, “We’re so frightfully glad you could come.” They say the key is to talk like Prince Charles, without moving the lips. Try saying “How fay caned a few,” to mean “How very kind of you.” You’ll sound like you’re on Downton Abbey.