Junior Canada/Linguistics Correspondant
It was an innocent remark, uttered down one of those old, beige landline phones many thousand kilometres away. The connection on that particular evening was crystal, so I had no trouble hearing my dad when he casually mentioned the slight Canadian accent I’d adopted. Floored, I laughed it off, trying to pick out which vocal inflection was the culprit and wondering if I actually had.
I want to mention here that I have nothing against the Canadian accent, I actually like it, even the stereotypical bits like “about” sounding like “a-boat” and the little “eh” with upwards inflection thrown at the end of a sentence. The thing that surprised me was the fact that without trying – either to imitate the Canadians or rigorously maintain my Australian twang – the way I speak has, apparently, changed. Words have changed too, which became clear when I talked to some freshly arrived Aussies a few weeks ago. Eight months after I flew from the middle of an Australian summer into a Canadian deep-freeze I find myself asking the whereabouts of the washroom, taking out the trash, going to school (uni), where I take courses (units) and meet with profs (lecturers) to discuss midterms (midsems). I also talk about the need for a sweater when it gets cold (because it’s fall now) of how many pitchers of beer were consumed, ask the cab driver to open the trunk and for the longest time wondered what the hell a toque was. On a recent road-trip there was talk of gas, gas stations and Tractor-trailers, because here truck means ute, and ute is just, well, a weird thing to say. Thrift stores reign over op-shops, “the bush” is not a thing though “the woods” are, and I’ve discovered asking if someone has seen your sunnies or that you “reckon” something is a sure-fire way to get a muddled look.
The funny thing is that it wasn’t really a conscious process. It’s not like I sat down with a list of words and committed all the Canada-speak to memory for fear that my survival depended on it. I’m pretty sure it was the result of my mind tuning into blank looks whenever I talked about capsicums (pepper), doing the washing (laundry) or sauce (ketchup). I realise these examples are all laughable for someone who is having actual problems because the language is not some variation of their first, but having experienced that once before as well, I think the two are completely different. Canadians know English is my first language, they don’t expect problems talking to me and apart from a chuckle at the accent sometimes (tomato, anyone?), they don’t think I’m going to come out with any linguistic craziness.
On my side, I expected to be able to waltz in and utilise my mother tongue without a second thought (barring the occasional francophone, I’m in Quebec after all). It’s not like I couldn’t understand people, not at all, just that it was sometimes like listening to a conversation where all the understudy words, the ones that I’d never choose to use first and only really know from movies, were being used. Occasionally things got confusing for both parties, but, if anything, I probably gained something by being a language anomaly and the interesting conversations it sparked. Despite at first feeling lost in a language I was certain I had down, somewhere along the line my brain adjusted the words I reach for first. The way I speak has changed, without me really meaning to or even realising and to the point where now it’s me who laughs when one of the new Aussies mentions how they lost their thongs…