Lost Among Europeans

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There is an interview with Naomi Watts where she comments how difficult she finds doing an American accent. Two words she mentions having trouble with, when talking with an American accent: water, mirror.

I have difficulty with the word users. I just can’t pull it off. My accent is half way between American and British, I think. My r’s are American. I have no difficulty with the singular user. The s in that word I pronounce with a non-sibilant z-like sound: uzer. I also usually z-ify my plurals: warriorz.

I should be saying uzerz, then.
But I can’t. It sounds wrong. I can’t transition from z to r and back to z. When I try, it sounds goofy.

I told my friend Anthony about my frustrations with users. He laughed and pronounced it naturally with his beautiful Australian accent. The r’s are the key. So much softer than the American r’s. uze-uuhz. I tried, and managed to pronounce it that way. But pronouncing it that way would not be coherent with how I speak English.

The internet is a funny place, and I have recently randomly learned about rhoticity in English. The dropping of the r’s is a relatively modern development, and in fact the rhotic pronunciations in use in the United States could be said to be more “historically accurate”—in a narrow way. The same thing happens with Spanish, where in some ways, Latin America has stayed closer to historical Spanish than Spain has.

The rhotic r’s make some things difficult to pronounce, but this is just one example. I know many native speakers of English who have difficulties with particular words, even in their own natural accent. For an Australian who elides r’s but pronounces t’s very distinctly, saying water with a rhotic r and a crisp t is difficult. Someone used to speaking with rhotic r’s would likely pronounce the t in water less crisply, closer to a d. Personally, I have no difficulty with water or mirror.

And this is interesting. Languages evolve over time. Person after person, generation after generation, finding solutions to little problems. Devising new expressions or usages. Making contributions to how particular letter sequences are pronounced.

This is culture.
The kind of culture that is about evolution, fermentation. The kind that is alive. The kind that is not about taxidermy and name-dropping.