The Barrier of a Common Language

We have really everything in common with America nowadays except, of course, language’ – Oscar Wilde in The Canterville Ghost, 1887.

Back on my old blog (welcome to my new blog, by the way) I used to write about what it was like being a Brit in Canada. Well, I’ve lived in Canada for 3 years, off and on, and I used to write about anything that presented itself to my British perspective as different or interesting. So anything, really. Lights. Colours. Sounds. Everything surprised, baffled, terrified and amazed me.

I’ve been in Toronto long enough, that I’ve become accustomed to the unpleasant smell of rubber and acid that is unmistakably that which is ejected from a skunk. It is unsurprising to see The Toronto Blue Jays, The Toronto Maple Leafs, The Toronto Raptors and Toronto FC falling short on their respective field, rink, court and pitch. Going to a coffee shop and asking for a “Double-double” is something I do everyday.

So what is there left that is inspiring enough to write about?

I still have a British accent and I continue to drop the occasional idiom of British origin. When it comes to receiving feedback on the way I speak, I’m on the front-line – I work retail. My colleagues and I often speak about various words and phrases and, of course, I often receive comments from customers. So expect me to start writing a lot about language from now on.

I would say that the feedback I get from customers generally falls into one of four categories. I will list those categories in decreasing order of regularity:

  1. Indifference. Most customers either don’t notice that I’m speaking differently, or they don’t care enough to show that they have noticed. Of course, why would people care? They just want to buy their book and leave. Toronto is one of the most immigrant dense cities in the world. Lots of people ‘talk funny’.

    Baffling as I find it, some people simply don’t seem to hear accents. Perhaps because they’ve never tried really listening. On the other hand, I am sensitive to accents because of something I will write about in the future: British class anxiety.

  2. Affability. Several customers-per-day will have a positive reaction to the way I speak. This ranges from a simple “Are you British?” all the way up to full-on suggestiveness, leering and, on occasion, attempted seduction. Attempted seduction is not an exaggeration, but is invariably perpetrated by menopausal older ladies who probably have an idealised perspective of Britain similar to the one perpetuated by the many similar acting roles of Hugh Grant.

    Some customers mistakenly take me for Australian, probably because my accent is not of South-England and is thus harder to place.

  3. Bafflement. Some people have difficulty understanding. Particularly those who are already hard of hearing. Slowing my speech and enunciating words is enough to overcome any barriers.
  4. Intolerance. On a couple of occasions, I have been told I should “Try to sound more Canadian”, but this kind of hostility is otherwise rare and laughable. Me? Try to sound more Canadian? I would scare away my Canadian friends!

    I have been accused, sometimes tongue-in-cheek, sometimes serious, that I do not speak “proper English”. “They [the British] think they’re speaking English, but they’re fucking not!”.

    I do my fair share of teasing, too, but if everyone really did speak the same way, wouldn’t it be a little boring? What would happen to word-play? Shakespeare was a master of word-play and wasn’t he British*?

One of my work colleagues falls into category number three: Bafflement. I often have to repeat what I say several times, and even then I have to explain them (I tease!). She likes her anonymity, so I will call her CK in these pages. Because CK so often is able to highlight what is strange (to her) about the things I say or the way I say them, it is thanks to her that I will be able to write about them. So send your hate mail to her. My other colleagues (somewhere in the middle of category two) and my Canadian wife (hopefully somewhere high up in category two) will also unwittingly be fuelling me with feedback.

Each time a word of phrase comes up, I will write about it on my blog. Since CK and I work together in retail, perhaps it makes sense that the next thing I write about is on the topic of shopping.

My ego is a little frail, so any feedback on this blog (or on Facebook if you are reading it there), is really greatly appreciated. Otherwise I will assume you all hate me.


Leave a Reply