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You alright, love?
...and other matters of English vocabulary
There's legend in my family that my great grandfather Johan Wilhelm Nilsen -- before American immigration officials made it the simpler and incorruptibly phonetic Nelson -- insisted to his family upon coming to America from Malmo, Sweden, "You have to speak United States." This wasn't a reprimand for misspelling colour with a U or mistaking an elevator for a lift, but a call to assimilate into his new home country first and foremost by speaking the common, official language. Of course, immigrants like him contributed to a constellation of accents and dialects across the country, like where in Alabama, "Coke" is an ambiguous noun and only in the small pocket of Southeastern Wisconsin is a water fountain actually a bubbler.
Here in Britain, there's of course similar lexical diversity. If nothing else, this trip has forever banished the term "British accent" from my vocabulary. Maybe the term can remain commonly accepted to describe the highfalutin royal drawl associated with prestige, or Emma Stone's dreadfully pompous London tongue when she recently played Cruella de Vil. The folks in the Midlands sound different than their compatriots in the South, and they all certainly have thoughts about the languages of the Welsh and Scots.
So first, a quick lesson on geography.
Britain isn't synonymous with just England. Britain is the name for the ninth-largest island in the world, just off the coast of mainland Europe (and many here see themselves distinct from Europeans). It is home to three countries: England, Scotland and Wales. Together with Northern Ireland, a northeastern corner of a smaller island immediately west, they compose the United Kingdom. (If you're wondering how these are distinct countries but the UK is its own country too, I'll get to that in a later post). Each has their own history and culture and white hot opinions about the House of Windsor's dominion over them all -- and of course, they all have their own clumps of accents and dialects that vary regionally.
I don't know the vocabulary to describe in words the specifics of how these accents vary, but after my fourth gin and tonic I'll perhaps try to imitate them for you in person someday. But there's still enough variation in not just accent but general dialect worth discussing. Here in Manchester, my home base for the second week of this trip, the locals have a curious, jarring greeting that's used almost one hundred percent of the time: "You alright?"
It's not a term of endearment saved for close friends and it's certainly not a genuine expression of concern, like if you were to put your hand on someone's shoulder, stare deeply into their eyes, and ask, "how are you?" The closest American equivalent might be the terse, "Hey." At home, we say "hey" to strangers in a hallway, as a greeting on the phone, and of course to loudly get someone's attention.
In the English Midlands , the universal greeting is "You alright?"
Shortly after my train rolled into town and I dropped my bags at the hotel, I found a nearby burger joint where the cashier greeted me with, "y'alright?" I frowned back at her. Did I look ill? Was I scowling? Had I done some cultural faux pas that only some woozy derelict would perpetrate and she was checking my mental condition?
None of the above. She wanted me to put in my order, quickly please, so she could punch it into the register and get on with the other customers.
While waiting for an elevator with two construction workers, they both greeted me with a brief "yaright" grunt after glancing up from their phones. When we got off and they recognized another employee, one offered the same salutation, though more enthusiastic, "Ey, Joanna, you alright? Good to see you."
"You alright?" means "what can I get you?" from a bartender, "welcome to Tesco" from the grocery clerk, "hey old pal, haven't seen you in a while" from friends meeting for dinner, and "I'm just being polite and have no intention to actually have a conversation with you" from the stranger in line ahead of you at the coffee shop.
In America we flippantly ask people "how're you?" as part of day-to-day greetings, and cursed be the person who treats the question as a mini therapy session. Here, "you alright" is about the same, they just get to it out of the gate.
When I first checked in to my room in Manchester, it reeked of thick, pungent perfume. It wasn't necessarily foul, but it wasn't pleasing, either. Soon it became clear why: the windows didn't open, there was no fan, and it was on a floor partially under renovation and the air conditioning unit (or, colloquially, aircon) had been temporarily removed. The housekeeper must have engulfed the room in a Glade-like spray to cover up whatever other stinks had happened in there previously. But my Midwestern sensibility to not complain took over as usual, and I soldiered through -- for a night. After a stuffy, restless sleep, mainlining the flowery atmosphere into my brain through my CPAP, something had to be done. I was still a little haggard from a dense week of adventures in London and now extra sleep deprived on top. I must have looked bedraggled, morose, probably irritated despite sincere efforts to unscrew what I've been told is a natural scowl, as I stood in line to ask the front desk about a room change. Finally, when I approached the desk, hair matted, eyes baggy, teeth unbrushed, the clerk asked, "You alright, love?"
For once I actually had an answer.