by Elise Seyfried
It takes me a little while to hop on the bandwagon. By the time I do, everyone else has jumped off and hopped onto the next bandwagon. It is this way with food (broccoli rabe), fashion (ballet flats), technology (iPhone: ifinally got one) and popular culture. My hot new singer is on his third album, and other music lovers have moved along to someone who genuinely IS at the dawn of a career.
So it is perhaps no surprise that I am only just now getting around to the TV series “Downton Abbey.” Daughters Julie and Rose and I had a catch-up marathon recently, during which we watched all of Seasons One and Two. Season Three is next on our must-see list, and we can’t wait. Originally skeptical of the show’s power to fascinate, we are now rabid fans of the Crawleys and their platoon of servants. Never mind that it is a glorified and gussied-up soap opera! We love Lady Mary and her Matthew (upstairs), Mr. Bates and his Anna (downstairs), etc.
Most of all, we love those British accents. They make the speakers sound intelligent and witty, no matter the content of their conversation. To my mind, anyone from the U.K. could recite the phone book (remember them?) and be positively spellbinding. I am a total sucker for foreign accents of any kind. I hear “oui” or “ciao,” and I immediately think: mysterious and fascinating, a Person with a Capital P Past. Never mind that that Past may have included a snooze-worthy job and ho-hum family life … for me, if you speak with an exotic flair, you are a superstar or a superspy — or a supersomething, anyway.
My globe-trotting offspring have made friends everywhere, from dozens of countries. I envy them their familiarity with the world’s citizens. I’m sure these folks have differences — tall, short, blonde, Asian and so on — but I’m equally sure they all SOUND amazing. During Julie’s first two weeks in Italy, she has met young people from Scotland, Turkey, Japan and Sweden, all backpacking around Europe. I’d love to see them someday. More than that, I’d love to hear them.
Now, I may be wrong, but somehow I don’t believe our various American dialects have the same romantic appeal overseas. For example, I am a native “New Yawkuh,” and my husband Steve hails from Indiana, where “pin” and “pen” sound exactly the same. As actors, Steve and I worked hard to rid ourselves of all vocal traces of the Lower East Side of Manhattan and Bradbury Street in Indianapolis. We achieved only partial success, and we still lapse into the not-so-mellifluous sounds of our youth. Some accents are charming. Our accents are just kind of annoying.
And I’m not too charmed by the speaking voices of my fellow countrymen either. The South is a hotbed of various speech patterns, from flat (Arkansas) to the “Gone with the Wind” drawl (Georgia), but again, I just don’t think “y’all” evokes intrigue; rather, it evokes an image of grits and gravy. My brother-in-law Rob is from “Minnesohda,” and when I listen to him I’m smack dab in the middle of “A Prairie Home Companion.” His is a sturdy and stoic parlance typical of one who used to shovel several tons of snow out of his driveway annually.
Perhaps familiarity breeds boredom, and maybe our international counterparts love the way we talk just because it is so different. It may well be that Jacques in Paris finds “parler en Français très gauche,” but he would delight in a good ol’ Texas twang. Maybe Elly Mae Clampett would have a full dance card if she ventured across the pond. But I rather doubt it.
I’m proud to be an American. I just wish we sounded cooler. Ah well. C’est la vie!
Elise Seyfried is Director of Spiritual Formation at Christ’s Lutheran Church in Oreland. She is also an actress, wife, mother of five and co-author (with husband, Steve) of 15 plays for children. She can be contacted through www.eliseseyfried.com.