Tuesday, October 08, 2013

Losing My Voice

I can't really trace it back to a specific time or place.  It's been happening for a while, now, but it's been in the past six months that it has accelerated beyond my control.
I remember mocking TOH for once, while on the train out to New Jersey - to Elizabeth for a pilgrimage to cheap chests of drawers and bookshelves at IKEA, I think, but I could be wrong - for exclaiming at all the "soccer fields."  It was hilarious and ridiculous; it was a story to tell our families and friends of the Americanisation (-zation?) he was undergoing, while I remained pristine, the intact Londoner.  I think I really believed that would continue; that I would live here without being touched by it - at least in this respect.
Of course, words crept in, here and there.  That was inevitable.  It's impossible to make oneself understood otherwise.  Phone calls can be particularly painful, with my clipped, cold accent, long vowels, and Old World vocabulary.  Then there would come the joshing - it's you who haven't moved on, US of A, with your language that's closer to ye olde English of the Pilgrims - we've evolved.  We use a preterite, where I come from - that's what I learnt. 
It's like a steady form of memory loss, this erasure of my identity, my tongue.  Is that British?  What is the word for that at home?  Is it the same?  Explaining the nuances of "quite"; substituting it with "pretty."  Where would I emphasi(s)e that word?  Where does that stress come in?  Ad-DRESS.  AD-dress. 

Shop.  Store.  Boots.  Cleats.  Football.  Football.  I mean football.  The one where more than two players actually use their feet.  I mean NFL.  College Football. 

August, 2013.  I am in a cab, heading home from the supermarket.  That's home-home, not Brooklyn-home.  I have two homes.  My mum got back from a hospital stay a few hours ago; I have picked up provisions.  The cab driver asks me where I live.  I'm taken aback, but then I realise - it's because I clearly don't live here anymore.  US?  Yes, nine years.  He speaks with a thick Indian accent; he moved to Britain in his late 30s and, despite being in his 50s now, he struggles with the language still, a little - he started learning it too late.  He struggles with certain words ("Well, 'mumble' means...") and with my accent.  I get to my destination, and he takes my shopping across the street for me.  I leave him a tip; he doesn't realise that I have left, lost, a little of my soul, my heart, a sense of myself, in his car.
Some things stick.  Pronunciations.  Quarter.  Water. 
Tomato is the real kicker, the one that I avoid saying if I can, at all. 

I used to slip into my accent - myself, the person I still think I am - like a comfy slipper.  With British strangers; with family on the phone; with friends in the pub at home.  Now, I struggle.  I can't remember what I sounded like.  I can't drink full British pints; I order halves.  The voice is unnatural, forced.  Even when surrounded by people from home, I don't sound like them.  It used to irritate me, my inability to keep my accent - I would become Bristolian-light if with people from the West Country; Brummie in Birmingham; and flatten my vowels with anyone north of Leicester.  My accent ever was a bastardized thing, with East and West Midlands parents, Sarf-East London roots, and for much of my childhood, a desperate need to not sound Sarf-East, my telephone voice for work (terribly home counties and nice), my reclaiming of London for university, my Yorkshire partner.  Sometimes people from home couldn't tell which part of the country I was from.  But it was me; British me; original me. And for some reason, it's much harder to accept that there is, indeed, NYC me mingled in how I speak.  Tipping; clothing; demanding good customer service; good summers, with free parties and concerts and outdoor activities; expecting 24-hour cheap public transport and cabs.  These things are all easily part of me.  But not the voice.  Please not the voice.
I still say London when people ask where I'm from.  But it is increasingly hard to sound like it.

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