Explaining the American Accent

Europeans often recognize Yankee tourists for a trait that we Yanks often don’t know we possess: our American accents. I have one. Nearly everyone I knew in the U.S. — in high school, kollidge, beyond — had one.

But, many Americans don’t know they’ve got ’em. Regional accents exist, sure: Southern, New England, New York City. But mainstream U.S.? Come on! Readers in much of the U.S. already may regard this post with skepticism, like a literary IPO for shares in the Brooklyn Bridge.

If so, I’m sympathetic. I spent most of my life in the isolated U.S.: the world’s third largest country by area, bordered by the second largest. Seventy percent of my fellow citizens are passport-less; for many of my adult years, so was I.

I get it. I’ve been there. I’m on your side.

For lifelong Americans with similar backgrounds, please permit the following sideways sidle into an explanation:

* * * * *

Like you, I understand the sentiment that English is only properly spoken in the United States.

English may have evolved in Britain in millennia past, but has become corrupted and debased there since, perhaps owing to the notorious perversity of the isle’s menfolk. Shakespeare would roll despairing eyes at the tortured syllabification of a Richard Quest, would nod with relief while listening to an A-list American celeb like Dustin Diamond, Aubrey O’Day, Omarosa Manigault. This is English, the Bard would think, and book a one-way flight.

Hold that thought.

Some of you have long secretly believed something like this, although you’re now understandably wary of me for stating the notion in such bold terms. Fine. No argument. I stand with pacifistically outstretched arms, a peaceful emissary.


Imagine yourself in the hub of a faraway European city with many international visitors. Most passersby speak in the native tongue, but you hear much English, too: in tones that mark the speaker as German, Australian, Indian, British. And in this global crossroads of a place, you also occasionally hear English spoken as God intended it to be spoken: purely, correctly, without discernible accent. Perhaps by a visiting American.

With me so far? We’re almost there.

The English spoken ‘purely, correctly, without discernible accent’ is recognized worldwide as an American accent.

Really! I mean it!

Continue your stroll about this global crossroads. Pass other English-speaking pedestrians. When you next hear the mother tongue spoken ‘purely, correctly,’ consider interrupting the speaker with a sociable question:

“What brings you here from the States?”

Expect to be answered, not corrected. I have erred only once, when posing similar questions in Madrid; the misidentified accent belonged to a Montreal-raised Canadian.

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