This Ain’t My English
This Ain’t My English
I’ve been living in England for a month shy of half a year now. It’s given me time to get my bearings, to settle in, and, finally, has allowed me to take a look around. As far as moving more or less half-way round the world goes, I’d be hard pressed to find a place closer to home. Same language, similar if not identical culture, same bloody monarch, and, if we want to dip into controversy, same phenotype. So, no big shift, really.
Though it took some doing, my paperwork is well on its way to being sorted. On the balance of averages, I probably know more, if not regional, then at least national, history than the domestic population. I’ve acquired a local pub. I can just about pass.
That is, I can just about pass – until I open my mouth. I said we have the same language, and, while it’s the same thing on paper as it is back home, the vagaries of the spoken language betray a wide gulf, wide as an ocean. It’s true that there are certain areas within Canada that are unique in their dialects, but that pales in comparison with England. There are numerous reasons for this – Canada’s population is too young to have developed beyond some rough and immediate differences, and the composition of our nation is largely immigrant based, which started the whole venture off as a bit of a melting pot. Two amongst many.
I grew up speaking what is known as the West-Central dialect, which, aside from some rather small regional quirks, is one of the geographically largest and most homogeneous dialects on the planet, stretching from the borders of Quebec through the Great Plains and on to the Pacific Ocean, paying no attention to international borders along the way. This isn’t to downplay those differences, but they are of the kind that requires some extra effort to decipher – it helps to be a native Ontarian if you’re interested in differentiating between someone from Pembroke and someone from Cochrane (mostly, well, because it’s unlikely that non-Ontarians, let alone non-Canadians, know people from either place, but I digress). Same thing goes for figuring out if what you’re hearing is a Thunder Bay accent, or that of Duluth, Minnesota. But these differences are far from as stark as those between Northampton and Gravesend, or Newcastle and Penzance, and, occur over vastly larger distances.
Thing is, though, as stark as these regional dialects may be from one another, they are known entities. English people know by ear if someone is English, whether they’re from the Lake District or from the Home Counties. And they distinctly know that I am not English. If I put the effort in, I can code switch and drop out most of my natural rhoticisms, to the point that someone thought I was an adept non-Native speaker, from some unknown corner of the Continent. I’ll allow the reader to make up their mind as to whether I consider that a compliment or not.
When not putting the effort in, I’m invariably nailed as a North American, and, due no doubt to the huge spread of West-Central, assumed to be American. I’m likely victim of my own neuroses on this point, but I can’t help but feel like people mistakenly pegging me as American comes with a whole heap of background assumptions – latter-day Imperial guilt and all the rest. Maybe not so bad amongst the English themselves, but certainly amongst expats of other countries, who have, at one time or another, been rubbed the wrong way by our bellicose cousins. I don’t need to carry that baggage – my country of birth has loaded me with enough for my liking, and, thanks to the indefatigable efforts of dear leader Harper, continues daily to heap it on.
What puts me in a bind, though, is that I’ve no interest in changing my dialect. It would be false of me to speak with a Received Pronunciation, and I have no interest in entering the fray of classism that is so inextricably wrapped up with how one speaks here, on either side. I guess that leaves me with the classic burden of all Canadians abroad – fleshing out the stereotype and politely correcting people when they mistake me for something I’m not.
For the first time in my life, aside, of course, from brief trips or holidays, I’ve been Othered, and been made to feel it. All the unheimlich of it aside, I’d highly recommend emigrating for a period, even if only for this. Difficult for us white hetero men to find it, otherwise.