This Side of the Pond – May 30

By Sarah Pridgeon


It’s been a while since I experienced a full-fledged panic about the peculiarities of my voice. Certain members of my new family still refuse to speak to me on the phone because they can’t understand a word I’m saying and a local official almost put the receiver down on me last week, thinking I had very much the wrong number. But for the most part, I can muddle through despite the strength of my accent.

I have, however, discovered that most people think I am Australian. At first I assumed it was an anomaly but, as the weeks and months go by, more and more people attach their first guess at my origins to entirely the wrong continent.

I used to be fairly sure that my Dorset twang sounds nothing like the laid back drawl of your average Outback dweller. Ironically, I can’t do an Australian accent on purpose to save my life. Nevertheless, it’s happening with increasing frequency and it seems to be getting worse: two out of three new acquaintances now make this assumption.

The situation reached a head when I met a delightful tourist couple from Texas who demanded to know which Australian city I hailed from. They had spent 12 years living in Brisbane so, even to people well used to the accent, mine apparently cannot be differentiated.
It’s not that I have anything against Australia – I would dearly love to explore its oversized wonders were I not petrified of giant spiders and I envy my Ozzy friends’ relaxed attitude to life. It’s just that I’ve spent 30-odd years cultivating this accent and I’m now forced to question how successful I’ve been.

Human beings are not the only ones befuddled by my voice. My father recently gifted me a book for my Kindle that was so good I found myself reading a passage to my husband before I’d even finished the second page. It was Notes From A Big Country by Bill Bryson, detailing his return to the United States after an extended stay in the UK, in case you’re interested.

Our Kinect overheard me as I began to read aloud. For those who have thus far escaped being shackled to one, a Kinect is a voice and movement recognition device that can be attached to an Xbox. It’s used to enhance various games and exercise workouts, perform internet searches and control the machine entirely if you can’t be bothered to reach for the controller.

In theory, the Kinect is a step closer to the Star Trek world we’re expecting to one day live in. In practice, it’s a little black box with the power to overhear everything you say, spy on you in your underpants and respond to its observations as it sees fit. Largely by opening applications on demand, but only if it feels like it.

The Kinect and I have a tumultuous relationship. I recognize its useful qualities but, temperamental at the best of times, it seems to take on the personality of a puppy when it hears my voice. It will drop everything and come running if it senses an opportunity to shine, but has absolutely no idea what I want it to be doing.

My accent renders it incapable of functioning, you see. Its usual reaction to my commands is to panic and do the first thing it can think of, which is almost never the thing I was asking it to do. I’ve taken to putting on an excruciatingly bad American accent when I’m alone in the house just to save myself the 10 minutes of shouting “play” with ever-increasing aggression each time I want to watch a movie.

I have made my disappointed peace with the continual misunderstandings of this stubborn and highly primitive artificial intelligence. Even so, I was not prepared for its final insult.

As I read out a passage from the book, the Kinect took diligent notes while I remained oblivious to its eavesdropping. Eager to please as always, it assumed I needed its assistance. As really the only help a Kinect can offer in such an instance is to dash off to the depths of the internet on your behalf, it leaped gallantly to the in-built web browser and recorded everything it thought I had said.

It came up with this search term: “akosuah expect joory cantamos integraciio florida baseball tray.” Resolute in its opinion that most of the words coming out of my mouth have nothing to do with the English language, it apparently assumed I was trying out different dialects in turn. I expect it thought Australian was one of them.

I did mention Florida, but I have never knowingly discussed akosuahs because I haven’t a clue what one is and I’m pretty sure ‘joory’ ought to be spelled with a ‘u’. I’m disappointed that no search results were returned because I imagine that search string would have led to some truly fascinating websites.

Clearly I have work ahead of me before I’ll be fully comprehensible to both technology and the community at large. However, light has appeared at the end of this tunnel.

I met a lovely lady during my recent travels. She was helpful, courteous and friendly and I enjoyed talking to her very much, all the while pleased to see that there was an Australian residing in our state. I mentally added a new nationality to the melting pot that Wyoming is turning out to be.

You can probably guess where I’m going with this. When I asked where she hailed from, it turned out that her home town was just down the road from my own.

Comfortingly, I once heard a theory that the Australian accent is what happens when an English person speaks while squinting up at the sun. Sunshine is not a weather condition that we Brits are quick to acclimate to when we settle in new places, so this may at the very least explain my own altered speech patterns.

I have come to the conclusion that British ex-pats slowly lose their accents via Sydney Harbor and who knows which other Commonwealth landmarks. Until I’ve finished adapting, I have decided to embrace the middle ground; this column was written while wearing a cork hat and enjoying a tinny.