It is the question that has accompanied me for almost twelve years after I relocated to London. It probably stems, I think, from the fact that I have transposed into English a bit of my Havana rapid-fire pronunciation and the chopping or obscuring of sounds at the end of words. Yet, that's not the reason why I get asked about my country of origin sometimes. It is mainly because I sound like someone else.
I have been confused with people as varied and culturally different as one can possibly imagine. On one occasion a lady called the travel agency at which I used to work and asked to speak to the 'young Irish lad who was on the phone just now'. Obviously she was connected through to D, the only Irish guy in the office. But it was not him, not, it was the other 'guy, the one with the American twang'. After a lot of enquiries on the sales-floor where even Sherlock Holmes and his sidekick Watson were involved, the call was put through to our department, operations, and the minute I answered the phone the lady said: 'Oh, it's you, it's you I wanted to speak to!' And she booked a holiday on top. Sweet.
I have also been asked if I am from Mauritius. I could understand the query if I was speaking French before the question was formulated but since I rarely speak the Gallic language nowadays, I take it that there's a sound in my pronunciation that keeps making people think I am Francophone by birth. Ah, well, better to be confused with a sun-kissed Mauritian than a pint-sized French president who needs Cuban heels to boost his puny 5'5''.
And have I mentioned my East London accent? My drummer acquaintance R calls me 'the Cuban Cockney' because when I am in a friendly and relaxing environment I forgo all linguistic correctness and get down and dir'y with me ol' chinas. As the clock ticks by and I become more insouciant, I travel the whole gamut of accents you can find in London, from the, mainly Asian, 'blatant' to the Jamaican 'bredren'.
The different pronunciations that co-exist in the British capital fascinate me. In the same way that Germans will very often say 've' for 'we' and 'ven' for 'when' (watch Michael Ballack, Chelsea's midfielder, in one of his first interviews after joining the London team), Indians and Bangladeshis will often do the same. And I have not even factored in the regional accents one commonly finds when venturing beyond the M25. In Cumbria sheep farmers still count in the old dialect: yan, tan, tether, mether, pip (one, two, three, four, five).
Cross the ocean and USA is about to witness the unveiling of a Regional English Dictionary that has been forty-four years in the making. Time for 'whiffle-minded' (it means 'hesitating' in Maine) and 'devil-strip' (from Ohio, it means the grass border between pavement and road) to be given their own leading roles.
That's why I no longer feel self-conscious as I used to when I first arrived in the UK. At the time I brought with me a strong Boston accent, the result of many post-graduate courses taught by teachers hailing from that city in the States. With the passing of time my inflection changed from a rising intonation at the end of the sentences to a flatter and more nasal one, typical of the Cockney dialect. I began to drop my intervocalic 'Ts' and people could not Adam and Eve how swift my transition was. The apogee of this linguistic transformation came when I could comfortably switch from posh English (whilst still at the travel agency) to a more colloquial one. I knew then I had found my own stasis.
Still, it ain't 'alf bad being taking for a Queens Park Ranger sometimes, innit?
Next Post 'Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music' to be published on Sunday 6th September at 10am (GMT)