Monday, June 12, 2006

Accent ecoute?

I have been making lots of phone calls to Canada in preparation for our move to Kingston, Ontario. And I've been making a fool of myself in the process. The last such folly was in a call to Cogeco, the company who will supply our cable TV and internet service. Looking out for my British husband's interests -- and fatigued after a long day of making arrangements -- I blithely queried whether they carried BBC America. Radio silence. Then the reply, a terse no.

Ahh, that's right: it's Canada. Why would Cogeco carry a channel packaged for the United States (the US having coopted "America" from North America, Canada laying claim to the "true North")?

Again, tired and addled, but realizing my mistake, I laughed out loud -- too loud, no doubt -- so American.

"We carry BBC World." Again tersely stated.

Meanwhile, I'm still chortling giddily on the line. (Stupid American.)

While I managed to finish the conversation having secured a cable package fit for a king, I continued to chuckle at my slip, and wonder how it is that I can switch lexicons as soon as the aeroplane touches the tarmac at Heathrow -- I know to say autumn instead of fall, to ask for a lift (ahem) instead of a ride -- but fail to converse properly with my future neighbors in Kingston (the first English capital of Canada, and proudly Loyalist for much of its history). I've already misspoken several times preparing for my post at Queen's University -- it's a term, not a semester, and they're second-year students, not sophomores. But what kind of fool will I make of myself in the classroom? Ordinarily a confident speaker, and an organized teacher, I have visions of students snickering to themselves (discreetly) throughout my lectures on Renaissance poetry. Stupid American -- how can she teach us English literature?

Thankfully I have a couple of months before I stand at the lectern (time I will devote to going Canadian). But I also realize that the facility I have in shifting to British English comes from the oral cues I hear -- the accent. While Canadians pinch their vowels (and end their sentences with "eh?"), and I hear the difference between Canadian and US varieties of spoken English, that difference is not enough of a cue to prompt me to adapt my vocabulary.

Hmmm. Flash cards? Berlitz? All-nighters with the Kids in the Hall?


Karen said...

Your students know you are American and will expect you to have an accent. There's nothing wrong with that. You're likely to hear many more titters if you try to use Canadian slang in the wrong way, or deliberately pronounce things in a way that sounds "Canadian" to you. It's not like they won't understand what you mean if you use American expressions -- and if they don't, they'll ask.
As for Candian accents, here's a long, rambling and mostly irrelevant comment: I found myself watching with my inlaws a show on Saturday night about two Canadian young men who have been convicted of committing a murder at age 18: for beating to death with a baseball bat one of the young man's parents and sister. They are both in prison, and Sebastian (not the relative of the dead folks) was interviewed extensively for the program. He's appealed his conviction, but it looks like he was partly inspired by the "perfect murder" committed in Rope -- in which, of course a baseball bat was also the weapon. The most chilling thing shown was the videotaped confession Sebastian inadvertently gave to an undercover Canadian cop, in which he talked about how they killed the family while naked (no blood on the clothes) and how the sister was the most difficult to kill, because she kept getting up and walking around. OK, my point in writing all of this? I don't know. It all disturbed me terribly. Maybe because I just taught In Cold Blood last month, and showed my class the movie Capote, and have been thinking about killers. I guess I just want to say that Sebastian's Canadian accent made him seem even more sinister -- maybe because the accent sounds like such a hybrid to me, that it seems fake.
Wow, what a long post! Thanks for taking such a long nap, Henry!

Euonymous said...

Lordy Karen, that's one lurid post!

First, I should say that I'm not worried about sounding American, it's more the vocab. In my job talk at Queen's, I was speaking on [caution: academic speech] Edmund Spenser's spelling, and, in particular, how the spelling of the figure (designating Queen Elizabeth I) changes in one of Spenser's poems from Elisa to Eliza -- Eliza with a 'z'! now, you'd think this would have occurred to me in all my preparations, but it hit me -- in the middle of the job talk -- that Canadians -- like the British -- probably refer to the letter as zed. In fact, I pointedly interrupted my talk when this dawned on me, to ask the 70-odd people present if that was the case -- and it was. Of course I had practiced my talk saying "zee" -- and while my prose is too wordy, one of the reasons for that is that I write for the ear, not "omitting needless words" because I want the sentence in question to sound right. At that moment, I had to make a quick decision, and, realizing I would probably slip in ways that would distract from my talk, announced that I was going to stick with "zee" for the duration of the talk, fully realizing that in doing so I may blow the interview.

I didn't. (Thankfully.) Interestingly, it's only been since I've been having these telephone conversations that I've felt -- with no scholarship to support me -- like an idiot. In truth, as I said at the interview, one of the reasons I was interested in teaching in Canada was because of the continued debates about language there, and because it seemed like a compelling place to study the politics of standard English. A case of "don't hope for what you wish for," or whatever that saying is. Your advice nonetheless reminds me of how I actually look forward to those moments of -- "oh, that was American -- what is Canadian?" -- to lead into discussions of what constitutes English.

Meanwhile, what's up with these Canadian murders, Caret? It's bad enough that there was an al-Qaeda plot foiled there (which I've resisted acknowledging, even though I take heart from the fact that they did indeed foil it).

In all honesty, Caret, Canadians sound a lot like Minnesotans. . . Might there be an element of the uncanny (unheimlich) operating there for you?


Euonymous said...

Oh yeah, just today I got an email relating to our "habitational" insurance -- not "homeowner's" insurance. It's stuff like that that I've had to negotiate. . .

Karen said...

Yeah, I know it was a weird post.
Their accents didn't sound very Minnesotan -- they are from Vancouver, and I'm not sure how accents vary accross the country. I suppose you'll learn about that soon! If they had sounded like the McKenzie brothers, my reaction would have been TOTALLY different. You know, disturbed in a Fargo sort of way.
If you're interested, I believe there's some video on the website:

I don't know why, but I'm still haunted.

Karen said...

Sorry -- here's the whole address:

Karen said...

one more try: