The Eternal Language Barrier

I’ve been chatting online with a pal in the hospitality business, comparing notes on the respective frustrations of running a B&B versus a motel. He is off to buy a new TV for one of the rooms today and I was reminded of the absurd TV buying disaster of yestercareer. So, with thanks to Barry for reminding me today, and Ian for putting me right at the time, I think it’s time to relive the great Canadian R debacle. This is what I wrote at the time…

(And if you have missed any of the other musings on culture shock and other oddities, you can find more at Immigration, Looking BackTradition TraditionAn Old Story, The Wizard of Oz and Cicadas and Alarums.)

It’s a useful thing, the Canadian R. There are times that I wish my English way of speaking – my inherent BBC accent – could learn to incorporate it. The technique would have helped a lot with this week’s spot of linguistic difficulty. The discovery that I am still prone to linguistic difficulty is surprising in itself. I have been through the initial culture shock associated with realizing that no-one in Canada knows that Brits speak a different language. I have come to terms with the fact that old episodes of ‘Are You Being Served’ on TVO don’t help me when I want to buy petrol, crisps or knickers.

I came through all that and emerged on the other side the sort of wise and whimsical Brit who uses the language barrier for fun but can turn it off at will when there is serious work to be done. I went native vocabulary-wise and thought I knew it all. Well guess what? Vocabulary isn’t always enough. An inability to produce the Canadian R can get you into just as much trouble as a car with a bonnet.

It all began with an email from a friend…another ex-pat from London, England, transplanted to Ontario. Another mascot with a quaint accent who entertains all and sundry on a regular basis with jolly misunderstandings of a transatlantic nature. After a few years of gags about putting trunks in the boots and boots in the trunks of our cars, asking for tomatoes that don’t rhyme with potatoes just to confuse people and clinging doggedly to trousers and torches and lorries, we both considered ourselves adept at mangling the language for pleasure, the deliberate, linguistically delicious cabaret.

So, what strange alignment of the planets…which unheard of synchronicity of biorhythms caused us both to discover in the same week that Canadians pronounce ‘pawn’ and ‘porn’ somewhat differently? Of course, I am very grateful to have received the email. Without it, typed amid tears of glee I understand, after what sounds like a classic cabaret day, I would not have known. And that is the big difference between his story and mine, his listeners put him right. There and then. Embarrassment, laughter, beer, funny anecdote.

Mine were polite. Without the anecdotal email I still might not have known quite how I had managed to horrify a couple of guests at my B&B. I would only have known that they appeared to think me a little strange. If my ex-pat pal had not been among work colleagues who consider it their inalienable right to poke fun, and if he had refrained from kindly sharing the joke with me I would still be none the wiser.

It might have helped if I had told them I was looking for a TV/VCR to upgrade one of our bedrooms but I didn’t. They told me all about their day and I told them all about mine. About finding this great little pawn shop where the people were so friendly and helpful. My guests looked a little nonplussed but smiled encouragingly. They appeared to want me to continue with an explanation, so I did. “They have this great scratch and dent section for electrical goods,” I wittered. “All new stuff, nothing used…and I have a 30 day guarantee too.”

If you are reading this, dear guests, I am truly sorry if you thought I was running a brothel out of the room next to yours. It was a beautiful little TV/VCR combo and I am still delighted with it. Brits are quite normal really.

I have been practicing my diction ever since. I thought I could be relatively Canadian when I chose, after all I can do a really authentic ‘howarya’ on the telephone sometimes after a beer or two. I have tried really hard to make ‘pawn’ and ‘porn’ sound different but I can’t do it. The Canadian R you see, Brits just don’t have what it takes. Should I require any more cheap’ncheerful electrical goods I shall have revert to Dickensian times and frequent the town’s pawnbroker. So much safer.

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1 Comments

  1. a.jones

    Reply

    Ah, reminds me of a French colleague who was having an extension built.

    She told us that the builders had just finished filling the foundations with cement. Of course, being French, she didn't pronounce the final "t" of cement…

    Then wondered why the rest of us were having hysterics.

    She was very careful to say cemenT after that. 🙂

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