MANIPULATING MY MOTHER TONGUE

I was born with a silver spoon in my mouth. Or rather, I was born with a British accent in my mouth. Actually, to be honest, I wasn't born with the accent, I developed it while spending my formative years at a British boarding school. So I lied. But that's the point: here in America, it doesn't really matter whether I'm telling the truth. When I speak, most Americans believe me. And it's all thanks to my British accent.

Americans have always been suckers for an accent, none more so than a British one. If I had a dime for every time a Yank has told me that I should play mine up, because "chicks dig it," I'd have, well, quite a few pounds sterling. But it's the assumed wisdom of my words that never ceases to astound me. Once when I was in college, a friend actually pulled me out of a conversation I was having with some other students. "Malcolm," she whispered, "From now on, you really have to preface everything you say with 'I believe' or 'I think.' " Apparently, my peers took my wacky drunken theories as gospel, simply because of my accent.

This acceptance of all things said in British translates elsewhere. Why do Americans love Tony Blair, ask friends back home? Because he seems so smart--because he speaks proper. Brits also get away with murder--or at least adulterous solicitation--here. The fact that Hugh Grant was busted with an L.A. hooker didn't matter to a lot of people, says one friend of mine. He had that accent, so the Yanks still thought he was "cute."

This is all quite liberating for us Brits. I can sprinkle my conversation with relatively vulgar Anglicisms like "wanker," "bugger" or "tosser" and still get the same response from American women--"That is sooo cute!" (Who cares what it means?) If I tell a joke in British, people will often laugh even if they don't get it--they know that Brit equals wit.

What I love most, though, is that there really is no such thing as a British accent. The queen speaks her way, Brummies theirs, a Mancunian sounds nothing like a Liverpudlian, and Geordies sound more West Indian than West Country. It's said that in one Yorkshire town, two very distinct tongues are separated only by the main road. Britain, according to linguists, has one of the most diverse dialect pools on earth. And Americans simply can't get their heads around this. To them, traditional BBC English is British.

Actually, I must confess, I lied again in that last paragraph. What I really love most is that even though I've lived here for nine years running now and my accent has faded to the point of no return, I can still play off my speech. Unless I am introduced as British, many Americans don't even assume I am anymore. (Particularly if they know someone with a "real" British accent.) But, detecting just a hint of Brit, or noting a peculiar expression I use, they often ask me if I'm from "somewhere weird--like Canada?" I've actually found that being a mystery is far more fun. At a party recently, I decided to revisit a joke I used to play when I had a strong boarding-school accent and clueless Americans still asked me where I was so obviously from. Intrigued by my peculiar patter, a young lady took the bait.

"You sound... You have an accent... Where are you--?"

"China, dahling," I informed her, in my best impersonation of BBC English.

"Really, how interesting," she replied, without a hint of sarcasm.

By Jove, I thought. I've still got it.

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