Separated by a Common Language

Kerry Dawkins, 2017 (edited in February 2021)

Many of us speak and write a different dialect of English from the one we’re expected to use in daily life. We’ve been exposed to multiple English dialects owing to our somewhat peripatetic lifestyle, and many of us are also interested in dialects as a matter of course.

I’m one of those people who sometimes feels some dialectal tension – I’m English. Code-switching to write like an American is no easy feat: I must always be conscious of my pronunciation, my vocabulary, my spelling, my syntax. This balancing act is particularly difficult under stress. Using an American accent is nearly impossible for me; my ordinary accent is a Received Pronunciation English accent that’s hard to hide. I don’t ordinarily talk aloud to people who don’t know who we are. Richard has a similar problem with his accent. I also find formal British or Irish writing easier to read at first glance than American or Canadian writing, even though you’d think it’d be the other way round, given our collective upbringing.

We’ve developed ways of working around these differences, such as avoiding variant spellings or using synonyms for words that differ between dialects. Some people here pass more easily than others; Richard and I are notorious in-system for not being able to completely hide our own expressions and accents, whereas people like Yavari and Hess struggle far less. It’s even more complicated for non-native speakers. Noël, for example, is fluent in English, but it isn’t his first language.

Sometimes system-members will use their own vocabulary by accident when writing in the singlet voice; a few years ago, we were working on a document for work, and I’d written accountancy instead of accountingaccountancy is more frequent in British usage than American – which someone else noticed. For me my words are simply normal, the way things are meant to sound. I don’t often realise that other people may find them odd unless I’m told explicitly.

We remain steadfast in some of our own preferences, however; in personal writing as the front persona, British, Australian and other non-American system-members will use the spellings and punctuation they prefer. We’ll Americanise as needed in work writing, but we shouldn’t have to abandon all our forms of self-expression if we’re not being paid for it. There’s only so much stretching we can do.