Carnett: Speech by any other accent would sound as sweet

Ever used a phony accent to fool somebody?

Yeah, me too.

When I was an 18-year-old college student, in 1963, my buddy Steve and I tried to impress girls at the beach with our English accents. We'd recently appeared in a Shakespearean production on campus and were pretty smug about our Elizabethan intonations. We took those accents on the road throughout Newport-Mesa to dazzle the girls.

Steve and I became Rupert and Clive from Oxford. Our rock-solid opening line was: "Hullo. Could you possibly direct us to the Newport Pier?"

Girls would gaze at us in wonder. "Ohmigosh! Are you guys from Canada?" To which we'd respond: "No, Worcestershire!"

For variety, we'd sometimes draw our vowels out to the threshold of incivility and become Derrick and Colin from Sydney, Australia. Same empire, different accent.

We soon learned that while cloaked in our Brit personas some girls thought us about as charming as a pork pasty or boiled potato. But, as Aussies, we could claim to be outrageous Bondi Beach surfer dudes. That garnered us significant cache in Newport.

Our egos were much too fragile to actually represent ourselves as Jim and Steve from Costa Mesa.

What we came to realize during our cultural forays into Newport's sunbathing set is that the little island nation of England — slightly smaller than the state of Alabama — has about a bazillion different accents.

There's no one accepted manner of English-speak!

You've got your Cornish, Liverpudlian, Yorkshire and Suffolk varieties to be sure, with dozens of others from throughout the English landscape, and a host of disparate tongues found in the warrens of London.

Steve and I strove to speak something akin to "BBC English."

Though British English is certainly not the most difficult of foreign dialects for Americans to mimic, I've learned that not everyone can effectuate a decent stiff-upper-lip rendition. It takes a certain joie de vivre.

Remember Kevin Costner in the 1991 film, "Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves"? Brutal. Early in the film Costner tries valiantly — though fails miserably — to sound like a denizen of Nottinghamshire. By mid-movie he drops all artifice and is "Mr. SoCal" for the remainder of the journey.

And how about Dick Van Dyke's fractured Cockney brogue in the 1964 film "Mary Poppins"? Though his body was as limber as Silly Putty, Van Dyke's accent was as rigid as a sheet of Drywall.

Have you noticed that many Hollywood films of the 1930s and '40s employed something called Mid-Atlantic English? Though not the vernacular of any particular locale on Planet Earth, M-A English sort of artificially blends American with British English. It sounds hoity-toity.

Americans view Mid-Atlantic English as a faux-UK dialect, while Brits see it as quasi-American. It was taught in the 1930s and '40s at many of this nation's prestigious acting academies.

I recently watched the sophisticated 1940 comedy, "The Philadelphia Story." Ten minutes into the film I asked myself why all these Philadelphians sounded British? Ever heard a mush-mouthed Philly native speak? That's the town where people pronounce Walt Whitman's name "Wall Women."

Proponents of Mid-Atlantic English have included Americans Katharine Hepburn, William F. Buckley Jr. and Gore Vidal, and Brit Cary Grant. A modern advocate of the vernacular is Kelsey Grammer of "Cheers" and "Frasier" fame.

As an American, have you ever wondered what American English sounds like to a non-English speaker?

I don't speak French, German or Russian, but can distinguish among the three when I hear them spoken in the public arena. Each sounds distinctive to the ear.

So how does English sound? Lilting and melodious, like French? Guttural, like German? Something in-between?

Some individuals in my wife's family — they're native Dutch speakers — have told me that American English sounds "fast but melodic" to the Dutch tympanic membrane, but American Southern accents are almost 100% indecipherable.

Thank you!

Four of my eight grandchildren reside in North Carolina and speak sub-Mason-Dixon English. This Yank has absolutely no ability to comprehend their natterings!

Except when they inquire about the Newport Pier.

JIM CARNETT lives in Costa Mesa. His column runs Wednesdays.

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