how to sound like an amurrican

September 19th, 2007 | Uncategorized

me & juneMy pal June Thomas, who I met back in the last millennium when she was part of the off our backs collective, and who is now the foreign editor for Slate, has a funny video up on Slate V. She’s British, and goes to see a dialect coach to see if she can learn to talk like an American, as many British actors have recently done for Hollywood movies.

June is one of my (and Mo’s) doppelgängers. She put me up once when I was visiting DC, and on the table next to my bed, I found a book with a hand-drawn cover on it that read “Vanilla Leather Love,” a reference to Mo’s favorite stroke book. It was a funny, subtle gesture that forever endeared June to me. Though she’s pretty endearing in her own right, as you’ll see. If you can get past the Infiniti ad. (Aren’t you glad there are no Infiniti ads on this site?)

46 Responses to “how to sound like an amurrican”

  1. kate says:

    oh, she’s super-cute and her accent–lovely! but if she really wants to get rid of the accent, send her my way. a few days with rednecks will probably change her mind.

    i’m almost embarrassed that that’s the way she thinks we sound when saying the star spangled. maybe we should all get lessons to british-it-up a bit?

  2. Jana C.H. says:

    It’s always good for an actor to be able to handle lots of dialects. In the Seattle G&S Society, everyone has to be able to speak and sing with enough of an English accent to fool Americans. It’s doubtful they would fool the British. Though the chorus sings with a “Queen’s English” accent, sometimes principals use other accents, such as Yorkshire or Scottish. A few years ago the soprano played the character of Patience with a Yorkshire accent that actually impressed a real Yorkshireman. She said she picked it up mainly from the movie “Chicken Run.”

    Five or six years ago Seattle G&S did “The Mikado”, and Bill Darkow (this summer’s King Hildebrand) played Pooh-Bah as a swindler-type with a very nasal American accent. But in the scene in which he talks with Ko-Ko in his various capacities one after another, he did a different accent for each identity. It was a tour-de-force. We’re doing “The Mikado” again in July of ’08, but Bill doesn’t want to do Pooh-Bah again. He says he might try out for the title role. After seeing his Hildebrand, I say he’d make a wonderful Mikado.

    Jana C.H.
    Saith WSG: Let’s go over here, where the Lord Chief Justice can’t hear us.

  3. Ellen O. says:

    Stroke book? First time I’ve heard that term but gotta say I loved it right away.

    Great video, June. Four years at Oberlin, followed by 24 here in Colorado, reduced my New Jersey accent considerably. It apparently re-emerges when I am tired. I wonder how many accents exist for English. Personally, I love the New Zealand variety.

  4. Aunt Soozie says:

    New Jersey accent?
    What? We don’t have accents here.
    I would like to buy a hamburger.

  5. Simone says:

    Hayull. ah shore wish AH wuz from TV. 😉

    In the Midwest we apparently have an accent to other people from the States, but we think we have none. That’s a unique arrogance we have. You don’t see folks from Jersey claiming they have NO accent, and that they way THEY talk is how EVERYONE talks. In Minneapolis it gets even weirder, because we affect some Northeastern things in our speech, and we sound different not only from other Midwesterners, but from other Minnesotans — even ones in our second- and third-tier suburbs. But we, too, think we have no accent. We must subconsciously believe ourselves to be magic or something.

  6. Jeffster83 says:

    Simone, you Midwesterners aren’t the only ones who think you have no accent. Californians also think that we have no accent, and so do people from Ohio. The latter group may be correct, though: I remember from a college linguistics course that Standard American English is that of the Ohio River Valley, and that all others vary from it. I have an acquaintance from New Hampshire who says I have a distinct accent, although she cannot point out any particular feature that distinguishes it from ASE.

    It’s curious that you use the words “affect” and “arrogance” to describe your own people. Aren’t those usually negative words, meant to be used against others?

  7. oceans 111 says:

    Must be internalized midwestiphobia.

  8. gatheringwater says:

    Convergence! I’ve enjoyed June Thomas on the Slate podcast (especially in August). I didn’t expect her to turn up here. Small world. Or maybe all the cool people are hanging out together…

    Internalized Anglophilia makes my accent nearly unintelligible. I blame the BBC.

  9. Jana C.H. says:

    It’s all right to say things like “affected” and “arrogant” about oneself or one’s own compatriots, but let someone else try and it’s POW! Right in the kisser!

    I can’t comment on the video because I can’t get it to run. This happens often with me. My computer’s too old, I guess, though I still think of it as My New Computer.

    Jana C.H.
    Saith Floss Forbes: If you don’t know the tune, sing tenor.

  10. K.B. says:

    Rocketboom had a similar episode last year:

  11. Sarah says:

    Oh dear, I had to look up what a stroke book is in the urban dictionary. Is it an American phrase, or have I just led a sheltered life?

  12. Juliet says:

    I love the video! June sounds just like I do trying to do an American accent. Despite rigorous training from my Massachusetts-born cousins I just can’t get round the fact you have to actually pronounce the ‘r’s. The only thing my cousin can say in a British accent is ‘I am a Tory’ (which she blatantly isn’t). It’s the source of hours of entertainment…

    Of course here in the UK we don’t think we have an accent at all being as we started it.

    I am also fascinated at how accents in the US only vary across vast swathes of the country, e.g. ‘The Midwest’. Over here everything is so compressed that 20 people miles down the road will have a noticeably different accent and I can usually place people to their nearest city of birth as soon as they open their mouths.


  13. Dr. Empirical says:

    I grew up in Connecticut. When I was living in Lousyanna my friends did an impression of me that sounded an awful lot like Thurston Howell the Third. I don’t sound like that, really!

  14. DeLandDeLakes says:

    Dang, she’s not bad! (Jumps up and down and squeals at the sight of Hugh Laurie)

  15. Alex the Bold says:

    Actually, the lack of Infiniti ads on this site is a significant problem.

    And I don’t think I’ve ever seen a spot for any of Massengill or Summer Eve’s fine, fine line of products here either! For shame.

    Get on the ball, Bechdel!

  16. Ian says:

    Actually, Chicken Run is more Lancashire than Yorkshire in accent! 😉 I can’t think of a good American accent by any Brit actor except maybe Hugh Laurie. It’s really difficult to get right!

    I’ll agree tho’ on pronouncing ‘R’s. I’ve never been able to do the rolling r’s in French or Spanish, which has caused more than a bit of confusion at times!

    Aw, June looks sweet – she’s even wearing the red striped t-shirt!

  17. Ian says:

    Actually, thinking about identifying accents, in my home town of Liverpool, I can pick out which part of the city people come from. Your accent also immediately defines your class, i.e. BBC = upper/upper middle class; Beatles = working class, although only Ringo was working class – all the rest were middle class with Lennon being the most privileged.

  18. Rosa says:

    Americans have class accents on top of regional accents too. It’s just we haven’t had as long to refine the variations. (All my grandparents learned English in school and sounded like Lawrence Welk.)

    And we talk about “Midwestern accent”, but drop a Minnesotan into a group of people from Indiana and you can definitely hear the difference. There’s a certain southern Iowa/Missouri accent that isn’t significantly different than any other Midwestern accent but it makes me so homesick I could cry.

  19. --MC says:

    Here’s my British American accent story.
    When I was in London, years ago, we were watching this TV movie on Channel 4, about a British writer who was being destroyed by Hollywood. There was a vivid sex scene in it that surprised me (this was long enough ago that they hadn’t yet shown any bare bums on the main US TV networks). And there was a scene where the writer was talking to his agent, a brash NY type played by a British actor, who at one point hands him the phone and says, in a broad approximation of an Amurrican accent that slips out of place like an ill fitting wig: “Well, pick up the phone and give ’em the golden hello!”
    When I meet you, DTWO4ers, ask me to do the voice, it’s funny.

  20. Duncan says:

    There’s an old joke about how thrilled American Southerners were when Jimmy Carter became President — finally the US had a President who didn’t have an accent!

    Ian, accent has a lot do with class in the US too. But of course, we’re a classless society. 😎

    “Stroke book” goes back a long ways. I think I first encountered it in Lenny Bruce’s routines, which means it goes back to the 50s at least.

  21. Ian says:

    Well, I know everywhere has a class system, we’ve just got it down to a fine art. Must be what inspired Marx in the first place … Middle class as he was. 😉

  22. mlk says:

    I always thought Ohio was part of the midwestern U.S., maybe because I live there. didn’t learn otherwise until someone from Nebraska informed me that Ohio isn’t part of the midwest at all.

    but then, where are we? are we part of the east?!!?!

    seems to me that the U.S. of A. has a pretty big midwest, or maybe we have 2? or 3?

    anyone given any thought to this?

  23. Suz says:

    Isn’t Ohio Rustbelt?

    Joel Garreau, in the Nine Nations of North America, classifies Ohio as part of “the foundry” which is essentially the rust belt plus the big mid-atlantic port cities and points in between.

  24. fiona biswaps says:

    Hello All,

    As a brit who lived in Seattle for 5 years (returning last year with my Midwestern wife for marriage reasons – Bush wouldn’t let us) I have a lot to thank my accent for, my now wife says she feel in love with me on the strength of our phone conversations. I just thought she was a bit deaf….’Huh?’ seemed to be her answer quite a bit.

    My favourite accent is a Southern accent. It’s fun to do and it makes me feel pretty and feminine

  25. JM in the TC says:

    That’s freaky. I was just reading and came across this video. Now I come here and there it is again. My web world is so small.

  26. 'Rora says:

    I listened to a lot of books on tape as a child, including a lot with British readers. I’m still good with languages, but at that age just hearing the accent a few dozen times listening to the tapes over and over, I came out permenently imprinted. There are a few British accents I just fall into when I hear them. It only takes hearing a few words and I can’t get them out of my head (the same thing happens to me with my second language and, to a somewhat lesser extent, iambic pentameter). I don’t know how good my renditions are, but they’re certainly compelling (to me).

    Trouble is, I don’t want to seem like I’m making fun of the strangers I’m talking to by imitating their accents. Also, I don’t actually know where, specifically, most of them come from. I can’t always pull them out intentionally either and when I do they sort of meld and melt into eachother. I guess my brain’s just wired for it.

  27. LM says:

    Once, while staying at a farm in Tuscany, we heard that the little town nearby was receiving a bit of cultural enrichment through a visit from a Florance-based choral group. The setting couldn’t have been better: little square, local residents gathered round or hanging out upstairs windows. The Group’s specialty, it turned out was what in my younger days were called Negro Spirituals. After a few “Hee’s gut tee whol’ vorld in Hee’s han’s we had to discretely clap our han’s over our smiles lest we seem unappreciative.

  28. mlk says:

    Suz, I guess we *are* rust belt. I’ve also heard this part of the country referred to as “Bible belt.”

    I always thought, though, that those 2 designations were just parts of the midwest. after all, the sun belt is part of the southwest, but it *isn’t* the southwest, isn’t it? I think of southwest, northeast, midwest, upper Atlantic/lower Atlantic as being regional and sun belt, rust belt, etc. as being “cultural.”

    which states are claimed in the Great Lakes region? isn’t that a recognized section of the U.S.?

    might help if I read up on Garreau’s work, huh?

  29. mlk says:

    our local library has one copy of Nine Nations; I’m having it sent to the branch down the street from me.

    maybe next week I’ll be better informed . . .

  30. Jana C.H. says:

    It seems to me that “The East” should be anywhere east of the Rockies. That’s the Continental Divide, right? Of course at times I feel that “The East” begins at the crest of the Cascades, but that’s just me getting carried away.

    Garreau is cool. I remember reading “Nine Nations” when it first came out in the Eighties, just before I started grad school in Geography. My mother and I took a trip down the Oregon Coast and read it aloud to each other on the way. Garreau opens his chapter on Ecotopia describing two white-water rafting guides as they prepare a bunch of greenhorns (including the author) to take on an Oregon river in early spring. Only at the very end of the description does he reveal that both guides are women. In 1981, this was a big deal, and showed how much Ecotopia was unlike the rest of the country.

    Jana C.H.
    Saith Joel Garreau: In some parts of the continent, it’s not the most common thing for a man to stare at a woman’s thigh with no more pruient a thought than to marvel at the articulation of her muscles.

  31. Riotllama says:

    A friend of mine who has lived in minneapolis for the past 7 years recently moved here to Philly and said, Ahh it’s nice to back on the east coast. “Back?” I said. “Yeah, I grew up in Pittsburgh.”
    The funny thing about this is that I’ve always considered Pittsburgh, if not quite the midwest, at least rust belt, up there with Buffalo and Poughkeepsie. I mean, jeez, it can’t be the east coast if you have to drive 6 hours to get down the shore.
    Which I was also teased by recent Detroit immigrants to philly for saying. Down the shore, people. Its when you go to the beach.
    I spend a lot of time with my detroit friends. There’s 4 of them in a 5 person house, the other is a native Philadelphian, like me. They make us say things they things we say funny over and over again. then we tickle them.
    PS. a linguist friend of mine said that one of the ways you can tell where on the east coast someone is from is to have them say ” merry, Mary, and marry” apparently, Philly is the only place that the three sound distinct. try it right now. I say meh-ree, mahry, and ma-ahry.
    Aunt Soozie- apparently the difference between south jersey and philly is in philly it’s wooder, in the jerz, it’s whutter. For those wondering, it’s water. I often get asked to repeat myself when ordering drinks in restaurants in places like Toronto and Chicago.

  32. Leda says:

    Lovley little video! To my English ear June already has a slightly mid-alantic accent or at least not completely English intonantion and I’l also guess that a long time ago she came from Scotland or at least was taught to speak by a parent who did……

    I have a standard English RP accent (so I think I am accentless, I know I’m wrong) and probably will do to the day I die. Recorded on tape I’m quite ridicoulous, I sound like I have a mouthfull of plums. However my mother and all my 8 aunts have extremely wandering accents depending on a) how old they were when my grandparents left America and how much they remember of the prematurley dying Grandpop I never met b) what they are talking about – its does seem to be contextual and c) how drunk they are!

  33. Leda says:

    Errr, just looked at what I’ve written….. the reason I say that I’ll guess that June came from Scotland a long time ago is because the accent is so mild, clearly June herself has a timeless exuberance…

  34. Ellen O. says:

    In my opinion, Ohio is definitely part of the U.S. Midwest. Regions seem to be as much about attitude and mythology as physical geography. I’d say that Pittsburgh is the first major city in the northern Midwest. Not sure what term is used for Kentucky and Tennesse. The High South as opposed to the Deep South?

    The Dakotas, Nebraska, Kansas are all “plains” states. Too far west for mid-west; too east to be the “true” West. Missouri too, probably. Oklahoma?

    Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, Nevada and Utah are the West or the Rocky Mountain States. New Mexico and Arizona and southern Nevada are the Southwest. Oregon, Washington and Idaho make up the Pacific Northwest.

    In my opinion, Texas and California are regions all to themselves.

    Dorkishly yours…

  35. Dr. Empirical says:

    I love hearing Philly natives pronounce the name of the local furniture chain Raymore and Flannigan. “Raymooah and Flaaaaanigin” I ask people where they bought their furniture just to hear them say it.

  36. Sarah says:

    Leda, I thought the very cute June sounded mid-Atlantic with a trace of Welsh. I’ve been listening to the British comedian Steven Merchant a lot lately (on BBC6 online) who speaks standard urban RP but with an underlay of a West Country burr. Fascinatingly, on the DVD extras for his and Ricky Gervais’s series “The Office,” he mentioned his father, who played a janitor on “The Office,” and he said “my fah-thuRRRR,” in the most authentically West Country way–as if his usual cultivated BBCese was being broken through by a lingual survival from his childhood roots in referring to his family.

    Ellen O., in re TN and KY, I’m from North Carolina and I call it the “Shallow South.” (To me that suggests our not-so-vivid participation in the moonlight-and-magnolias culture of the “Gone With the Wind” Deep South as well as our comparatively northern location.) But nobody else does, just me. 🙂 I guess really NC should be called part of the Southeast or South Atlantic, and TN and KY should be Southern Appalachia. Missouri I definitely think of as Midwestern, though. Maybe that’s because I married into an Iowa family, and they see themselves as being exactly in the middle of a region defined by Chicago and St. Louis, and of course deeply, classically Midwestern.

  37. Sarah says:

    Oops, that should be “were being broken through,” not “was being broken through.” Subjunctive!

  38. Ian says:

    That’s weird – I’ve just started watching Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip (it’s been on for about a couple of months here in Britain) and the English writer woman (who is fantastic) has kept her accent. But it’s a standard southern English accent. The more standard northern accent (a bit like mine) is Daphne from Frasier.

  39. Bella says:


    “Shallow South” Yes! I grew up in New Jersey, part of the mid-Atlantic States, along with Delaware and Maryland. I do like associating states with natural features such as oceans, gulfs, and mountains. Seems more authentic than the sometimes arbitrary state lines.

    Concerning “little bottles of waters,” I realize I say something closer to “liddle boddels ov wadder.”

  40. Josiah says:

    My New England-raised wife says she can always tell when I’ve had a call from my Virginia family. I answer the phone with a standard American “hello?”, but then as soon as I’ve heard the caller I say “Oh, hah. Hey you?” (That’s “hi, how are you?”) She says the only other time she hears my Virginia accent coming through is in the word “tea”, which she clips to something like “ti” but I spread out to “te-eeh.”

  41. Andrew O. says:

    That video is hilarious! I think Mo is a perfect combination of Alison and June. And I’ve lived in the Bay Area for over 30 years, but people can still spot my East Coast origins from my speech; as soon I say an “ing” word with a hard “g” at the end I give myself away.

  42. Gavin says:

    Beatles = working class, although only Ringo was working class – all the rest were middle class with Lennon being the most privileged.

    Actually, it breaks down as follows:
    Ringo – very working class, was raised in the roughest neighborhood in Liverpool
    George – also working class. His father was a bus conductor, and the first house he lived in had an outside toilet.
    Paul – lower middle class, with a cotton salesman father and midwife mother. He family came down a bit in the world after his mother died of breast cancer when he was 14.
    John – middle class; was raised by his aunt Mimi and his Uncle George, who ran a dairy.

    I drove by John’s comfortable-looking childhood home on a visit to Liverpool in 1989 and thought, “‘working class hero,’ my arse.”

  43. Kelli says:

    @Ian: Actually, Jane Leeves (“Daphne”) is from southern England, and required coaching from John Mahoney (“Martin Crane” aka “Dad”), who is from Lancashire — Blackpool, to be specific — in order to pull off the Manchester accent that Daphne has.

    What really knocks me out are those times during the course of the show when Mahoney would occasionally, as Martin, make fun of Daphne’s accent, and he would sound like an American trying poorly to mimic a British accent.

  44. Dr. Empirical says:

    Rose Tyler: You’re not from another planet, you’re from the North!

    The Doctor: Lots of planets have a North!

  45. zeitgeist says:

    ‘@Ian: Actually, Jane Leeves (”Daphne”) is from southern England, and required coaching from John Mahoney (”Martin Crane” aka “Dad”), who is from Lancashire — Blackpool, to be specific — in order to pull off the Manchester accent that Daphne has.’

    Get out! John Mahoney is British? Ha, I had no clue!
    June is way too cute. I’ll trade accents with her any day. Born and raised in New York City and living in the Boston area for most of the balance of my life, my accent is an unbearable New York/Boston mix, ugh! And I mean Queens, New York accent a la Fran Dressher.

  46. liza from pine street art works says:

    I love Fran Dresher’s voice. The Nanny was one of the funniest shows ever on TV, and one of the very few with actual Jewish Characters.