I admit it; I’m writing a book. I only tell you this so that I can’t back out can write this article about the challenges posed by language-confusion. The setting for the book is in America. Why should that be a problem? I hear you ask. After all, I spent the first 35 years of my life there. That’s not the problem; the problem is that I’ve spent the last 30 years here. We all speak English, don’t we? I hear you ask (You ask too many questions, if you don’t mind.) And yes, we do. But there’s English and there’s English. And, indeed, there’s English. Not only am I juggling Australian and American versions of The Words, but I spent 28 of the last 30 years living with a Yorkshireman — not even a standard Englishman, speech-wise! I think you can see where this is going.
The first twenty years here I couldn’t distinguish between an Australian accent and an English one. Nevermind trying to discern accents from South Africa or New Zealand. Well, thanks to cricket, I can now spot a speaker from any of the above English-speaking-cricket-loving nations. I can now even recognise an American when I bump into one. For many years I didn’t recognize an American accent even when it was sitting next to me. Anyway, this isn’t about accents. They don’t count for much in books.
This is about speech, written or spoken. Vocabulary, idiom, syntax — the whole array of things that distinguish a speaker’s origins without resort to accents. Some things are extremely obvious, like the expressions and words that Hollywood film makers have characters from Australia say. Things Australians would never really say, (G’day, Mate. Is that your sheila I saw out in the paddock chasing a brumby?) at least not so many in one short speech, but which identifies to the viewer that this is an Australian. My problem is, I no longer know whether something is American, Australian, or even English.
Where I’m getting caught is in the small, subtle things. I find myself typing “As he drove into the carpark . . .” ACK! . . . parking lot. If I recall correctly, what is called ‘Take Away’ (food) here is ‘Carry Out’ in the US. (I’m relying on you folks to correct me if I get any of this wrong. If I do get it wrong, it merely demonstrates my point anyway.) Examples: silverware there, cutlery here; napkin there, serviette here; pitcher there, jug here; stove there, cooker here; sweater there, jumper here. Australians tend to know the American terminology, but the reverse is not the case.
Some of the differences can prove downright embarrassing. There are a few American words that are simply not said here in a social context, unless, of course, one is intending to be rude. Ah! there’s an example. I don’t recall the word ‘rude’ meaning anything other than ill-mannered. Here it has a broader meaning, often used to describe something sexually suggestive or offensive, frequently of a humorous nature. Perhaps that’s also the case in the US; I don’t know anymore.
One of the most common errors of commission in that regard pertains to the F word (I’m referring to a five-letter word here.) Some Americans seem never to learn, and continue to use it, despite having been warned on multiple occasions. (You know who you are, Mary!) But I’m digressing. I had a professor once who used to refer to such meanderings as “tangential digressions.” That sounds so much more erudite than simply losing track of what you were saying. Now where was I?
Oh, yes. The subtle turn of phrase. Example: an American would most likely say “Look at this,” while an Australian might say “Have a look at this.” An Englishman — at least from certain regions — is likely to say “this wants looking at.” Where I would typically say something needs to be done, people here would likely say it needs doing. I think we have a lesson in grammar lurking about in the middle of all this, but I’m not taking that on right now. Or ever, if I want to continue living here.
I’ve already talked about some of the language-confusion pertaining to dining in Australia. Another area where danger lurks is on the roads. Well, of course danger lurks on the roads, but I mean it in the context of language. I think that will have to wait until another day, however. My driving manual is out in the boot. MM