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When you say tomayto and your child says tomahto

When you say tomayto and your child says tomahto

An American father despairs at his son’s English accent

An American father despairs at his son’s English accent

Lane Greene | June 20th 2018

When my son Henry was born, I began taking notes. Language-writers like me love children, and not just the way normal people love them. They are experimental material (one linguist made sure never to use the word “blue” around his daughter, to see if it would affect her perception of colour). And they are sources of observations. I’ve kept a record of Henry’s first word, phrase and sentence, which was burbled out in three mixed languages (his mother is Danish, and we were living in Germany).

But like every parent, I not only dote on my children, I also worry for them. And after nearly three years as an American in Britain, I’m developing a worry that is hard to confess. For about two years of living here, there was little Britishness to be heard in his voice. Having an American father and teenaged older brother seemed to be enough to keep words like “car” and “bar” r-ful (say it aloud, British readers), and his vowels closer to New than old Hampshire.

That has finally started to change. The first time I noticed it was when he came home from playing a computer game with a neighbour and excitedly told me about “Minecrahft”, with the broad southern English “a”, as in “father”. My ears pricked up. “Oh, you played Minecraaaft?” I answered, with a nice long lean on the “flat” a that southern English speakers use in “trap”, and Americans use in “craft” too. And for the first time I can remember, my child corrected my English. “It’s Minecrahft, Daddy.” “I know, but I say Minecraaaft.” He was getting agitated. “No! It’s Minecrahft!”

I got another shock when I noticed his sudden new preservation of the t-sound in words like “little”. Between vowels and vowel-like sounds, Americans “flap” this t, making “latter” and “ladder” homophones. But when Henry pointed at a vegetarian dinosaur in his book, saying it was “not a meat-eater”, I heard, three times, a T so perfect it could be served with milk and sugar to the Queen.

By this point, I was getting agitated too, under the surface. Henry has an American passport. He was born in Manhattan. I don’t mind if he picks up a bit of British, but I want him to have enough American in him that if he settles in the states one day, he could swap back without too much trouble; he should at least hear and be able to repeat back the American sounds, even if he’s Hugh Grant in the playground.

An accent is such a big part of our identity. It’s like wearing a big sign saying “I am American”, “I’m from Liverpool”, or in Britain perhaps, “I am working-class”. We assume that accents are set early, not just any old sign but an authentic and immutable one. We don’t trust those people known to have changed their accents. Who are you trying to fool?, we wonder. We know where you’re from. To try to be posher (for instance, British sounds from an American) or cooler (American tones from a Brit) than you really are is a sin not easily forgiven. As for those in-betweeners by nature, like my son may turn out to be, they face a life of being asked where he’s from and having to answer “it’s complicated.”

But truth be told, there is another, deeper worry. In every parenting career comes the terrifying realisation that there are some things you simply cannot control. I had wanted Henry to sound like me because, like many parents, I secretly wanted him to be like me, only better. His new vowels were an early warning that raising healthy independent children means that they will, one day, do what they damn well please.