Dear Muffin Lady,
I should have warned you up front: I am not a morning person. People I work with know not to ask questions until I’ve had coffee, breakfast and cleared my email.
And while I understand you would like me to buy breakfast from you more often, making know-it-all small talk doesn’t help. And breaking down for me just how and why I speak as I do will not make your chocolate-chip muffins any dearer to me than they already are, thank you.
So, now that I can get a word in edgewise let me tell you how it is:
- No, I am not from England. Not from any part of it. Never have been. To you it may sound that way at first. But no, I am positively not. From Britain. At all.
- Neither am I from Australia or New Zealand. Though I would understand if you thought so. I get that sort of thing a lot and even have to listen a while myself before figuring out whether someone is a Kiwi or a South African or a Namibian or a Zimbabwean. So I understand.
- And I am really not that surprised when you get it wrong. Most people do unless they have a very close friend or family member from Southern Africa. It is a common mistake and I am not offended one bit.
- In fact, it is rare that I meet someone who doesn’t ask where I’m from. And when you do, all bright-eyed — as if you are the first to notice — I usually smile sweetly and say, “Canada,” just for kicks and to see whether you’ll leave it at that. That’s if I’m at home here in San Diego. If we’re traveling, I usually say, “San Diego,” again to see if you’ll let it lie and save me the rest of the conversation that must surely follow: OhHowlonghaveyoubeenhereIhearit’sabeautifulcountryMydentistis
family. Et cetera.
- Perhaps I should be more tolerant and polite but as I said, I have to answer as to my origins often. Probably four or five times a week and usually to strangers that I’ll never meet again. So pardon me if I get a bit lazy or even testy.
- Especially when, after we’ve chatted a while, you inform me with great certainty that now that you hear me speak a bit more, you realize that the way I say “can’t” — KAHnt — is not English at all.
- In fact, dear Muffin Lady, it’s probably one of the more Englishy things I say. I’ve been out of South Africa so long now that my Canadian-ness and my American-ness have softened and flattened my speech such that I’ve lost most of that prissy La-Lucia-girl* speak. A real Anglo South-African girl would say “can’t” very differently — with more of an O-ish sounding A. Trust me, I’ve tried every combination of vowels on this keyboard to show you how it looks and sounds but none of them seem right, so you’ll have to trust me on this one. Get me on the verandah with a glass of wine and one or two of my South-African girlfriends when I am visiting and you’ll hear it come back strong. That clipped, nasal tone that begins in the very front of my mouth, resonates through my nose and teeth and cannot be spoken without the rolling of eyes and langorous hand gestures. This is my natural accent, long lost now but ever at the front of my mouth in memory.
So when you ask me where I’m from and then proceed to tell me why my accent is or isn’t English enough. First thing in the morning. Before coffee or the comfort of chocolate chips or email. Don’t take it personally when I disagree with you. Or when I give you a twenty to break, even though I have two perfectly good dollar bills in my purse.
The girl with the British accent
** Durban equivalent of valley-girl speak, for you Californians reading.