October 14, 2009
It started in childhood, of course. Everything does.
The year: 1987.
The film: THE PRINCESS BRIDE.
Starring: Cary Elwes…and his steamy British accent.
Oh that melodious accent. It was scintillating. It was fatal. It was official: I was obsessed. From that moment on, I’ve considered myself an accent connoisseur (pronounced with the proper French intonation which evokes thoughts of sweet nothings whispered in a darkened chateau whilst clutching Bordeaux in vintage stemware). I love accents both thick and light, both guttural and pleasant-sounding. European, Australian, even Southern. Accents are music to my ears.
Now technically speaking, everyone has an accent. I mean, we Americans are considered the ones who “talk funny” to, say, the Irish. A very official (ahem, Wikipedia) search confirmed my theory. Groups of people develop accents because of geography, ethnic makeup, and social class. One interesting factoid I unearthed from Wiki: “It has been theorized that the accents of certain groups in the USA today resemble the English spoken by the settlers in the 17th and 18th centuries more than it does the English spoken by most Britons today.” Sweet. We speak the same English that John Smith seduced Pocahontas with.
But let’s get to the nitty gritty: American accents, fair as they may be, are old news to my wanderlusting ears. Ever since I heard Cary Elwes utter, “As you wish,” to Princess Buttercup, I was done. Sign me up. In junior high, a British foreign exchange student named Christopher charmed me (and all the other girls) when he read a poem to the class about his parents meeting in “Smelly New Delhi.” But Southern California in the 1990s was not hot-accent central, unless you swooned when you heard horny guys saying inappropriate things to you as they drove past. I needed more, I needed bigger. I needed the real thing.
My junior year of college, I had the opportunity to study abroad. First choice: England, naturally. I nearly made myself dizzy when I first got there, drowning in the wide variance of British accents that London had to offer. Everywhere I looked, cabbies were calling each other “Cheeky bastards” as they raced through the London streets (on the wrong side of the road, no less). Surly bartenders were calling me “Love” but somehow not really meaning it. Groups of intoxicated, track suit-wearing rugby fans on the street were constantly yelling “Tosser!” at each other and asking me if I’d “Fancy a ride, sweetheart?” And since they, unlike the cabbies, were without means of transportation, their offer could only mean something lewd. But I still loved the accents.
When I got settled in my exchange house in Oxford, I was a bit disappointed to discover that my three male roommates were all from America. Borrrrrrring. But when I finally immersed myself in the dining halls and common areas of Hertford University, which was actually pronounced HART-ford (I think the Oxford dons did that simply to test of who really knew what they were talking about and who was just bluffing), I discovered the most pleasant-sounding accent of all: received pronunciation. Translation: that hot, snotty British accent. I know, I know. Snotty is not good. Trust me, I found that out the hard way.
These British boys, always named Alistair, Duncan, or George, came to Oxford from moneyed families older than my home country, wearing gold rings on their pinkies stamped with their initials, which were also their fathers’ initials, and his father before him. These boys drank and partied like nothing I’ve ever seen, and I soon realized why: because their whole life was already laid out before them. They had gone to the best secondary schools (high schools, in Brit-speak), passed their A levels (the Brit equivalent of SATs), and now were living it up at one of the most prestigious universities in the world before moving to London, getting a top job at a bank, and marrying their equally-rich (and very bitchy) female counterparts.
This is a generalization, of course. But it was disheartening to learn that the majority of these golden-tongued males were only out for one thing: slags (hooches, if you will). And this American slag wasn’t so down with that. Sure, I may have made a few social blunders that made it seem like I was playing their game – did you know “knob” doesn’t mean doorknob in British slang? It was very well-received. As was my declaration that I liked Duncan’s pants. Trousers were what you wore on the outside, I was told. Pants were underwear. Oops.
Even after being pursued by a Jason Statham look-alike whose real name was- I kid you not- George Burns, I started to miss American boys. Men, I mean. Our country grows them nice, I realized longingly from 3,000 miles away. And I had never appreciated them as I should have. After an exciting (and educational) year abroad, I was happy to come home to a country where the men played real sports (cricket does not a legit athlete make), dressed like males (nary a striped sock or pink shirt in sight), and loved passionately. Take that, Italians!
Sure, sure, I still swoon a little when I see a movie starring an actor with a deep and intoxicating British accent (Alan Rickman, Jeremy Irons, and the ephemeral Johnny Depp have the best accents in the business today), or hear an Australian accent in a bar (and trust me, they’re always in bars). But the accent I’ve come to love the most is one I never thought I’d hear, let alone be obsessed with: a little bit rough-and-tumble Maryland, with a twist of New York by way of Florida. This accent caught my ear with the very first words it uttered: “So, uh, what are you doing later? Can I take you out?” And it continues to bowl me over day after day. It’s the first thing I look forward to hearing in the morning and the last sweet, comforting thing I hear at night. Come to think of it, maybe it’s not the accent so much as the person speaking with it that I’m obsessed with.
And that is true music to my ears.