Shibboleth on Toast
I don’t need to worry any more about drifting towards bastardised mid-Atlantic speech-patterns. Or, rather, I still need to worry about it, but I don’t need to worry that it’s already happened, because I have what seems to be a foolproof test: if I can ask for some butter at a commercial eating establishment in Los Angeles and be understood first time, the game’s over, and I might as well give up.
Fortunately, I keep failing. I was first aware of this one morning in one of the dorm canteens at USC. Missing some butter for my toast (“Nobody,” // He whimpered, // “Could call me // A fussy man; // I only want // A little bit // Of butter for // My bread!”), and — not for the first time — seeing none on the serving tables, I approached the staff behind the hot food counter. My first attempt to describe what I wanted having been met with blank looks, I was suddenly aware of the weird alienness of the word as it came from my mouth, and, like the sort of unavoidable rictus that typically results when one is asked to smile naturally for the camera, the second attempt was weirder still. Resorting to the dumb-show of sweeping the index and middle fingers of my right hand as a virtual knife across a piece of virtual toast, I finally made some sort of contact, but with the comic result that thereafter the serving staff would jokingly — though gently — refer to me using the same mime.
And so it has persisted for a number of years, up to and including a few days ago. Without consciously compromising my British vocabulary very much, I don’t seem to have any problem getting around, and mostly scarcely notice any failure to communicate, except when there’s a need for butter in a restaurant. The word seems to distill many of the particularly British — and especially north-eastern English — pronunciations: the short, almost simian /u/, the fastidiously-sounded /t/ (never allowed to slide lazily into /d/), and the complete, complete absence of any /r/ sound at the end. Even the initial /b/ plosive is often misheard, and I’m asked, bizarrely: ‘Water?’
Fortunately the language school of Basil Fawlty and Manuel left me with the security of being able to bring out ‘mantequilla’ if I need a big gun, but there’s still something comforting in being reminded that I’m not from these parts, even if it takes looking like a dick to get there.