Days 16–18, August 9th-11th: the inevitable language post

Greenhouse gas emissions (CO2eq): loading…◴
Sigurðar saga fóts: 97/252

Oops, yeah, I did get the carbon emissions wrong, but I haven’t worked out the right figure yet. Bear with me.

Wow, so yeah, Toronto! Of my native English-speaking friends, probably half have emigrated across the pond in one direction or the other, so I wonder what I can say about being British in Canada that isn’t just banal. Sorry if it’s lame! I haven’t, since my arrival, done much that’s touristy. Actually, I feel like I’ve quietly just moved in, and I’m enjoying it. The noble gentleman who, for reasons best known to his old band, I think of as the Goon, has moved to his girlfriend’s place, giving me free run of his very nice flat in downtown yuppieland with polished concrete floors and ceilings, two balconies (albeit one of which I haven’t worked out how to open the door to) and a view (alluded to in the previous post) of what turns out to be the CN Tower. Meanwhile, my friend the Dutchman has also generously accepted me into his day-to-day life here. And as I am kind of exactly the same person as the Dutchman only with more character flaws; and since the submersion of Doggerland has yet to have any serious impact on the fact that the Netherlands and England are virtually the same place; and since we’ve otherwise lived in the same countries anyway, it’s totally amazing having him show me around places, because he automatically knows exactly what I want to know about everything and how to explain it to me. Winner!

Before you go to North America, everyone’s, like, you think you know what it’s like because you’ve seen it on TV but actually it’s TOTALLY FREAKY! Well, or maybe that’s just the USA. Or, conversely, one of the Icelanders I was hanging out with last week was saying how when he first came here he was worried that the plane would just head west and then keep flying and flying and they’d never find America because it would just turn out to have been made up on TV. I sympathise with the latter view: I was involved in making a documentary a while ago and the director was, like, okay, now I want you and presenter dude to walk out of shot behind that building. Talking to each other. So off we go and I’m, like, what am I supposed to talk about? But fortunately presenter dude has been in this situation before and has a conversation piece: ‘I don’t know how much of my life I’ve spent walking out of shot to some non-existent destination. Where I am supposed to be going?’ Now I know! America is the parallel universe where all those actors walking out of shot finally arrive.

But actually, so far it all feels quite homely and normal. Most of my hanging out has been with medievalists, and since the Institute for Medieval Studies at Leeds seems to be half Canadian anyway, this feels like business as usual.

But I have just realised that this is my first trip to an English-speaking country—apart from returning to Britain from abroad obviously—since I went to Ghana in 1998. And even there English isn’t really anyone’s mother tongue, which would take me back to Ireland in 1996. So it’s a little bit funny coming abroad to a place where they speak English. I mean, in Iceland, I totally look like a tourist. If only because the way I dress turns out how to be exactly how tourists dress in Iceland. So it’s not like I blend in. But I talk to people in Icelandic, and you see this flicker of surprise and then they rescue their composure and we just get on with things, so I feel that there’s this linguistic negotiation of my foreignness. Yes, I’m foreign; but look, I’m adapting. Kind of the same in Finland except sometimes, like just for basic stuff, people wouldn’t even notice I was foreign. And actually, when I went to Ghana I realised that people understood me much better if I put on a Ghanaian accent, so I spent most of the trip talking like that, so there was this sense of adapting there too. Maybe, after thirteen more years hanging out in universities with linguisticists and post-colonialists, I’d be too self-conscious to do that now. At any rate, here I just look like another person. Even the police wear shorts. (Though they have guns! Eek!) But, like the Sceptical Ex-pat, I open my mouth here and do feel quite, erm, English; and I have this lurking sense that I ought to switch language; but just don’t feel able to. So oddly it’s more alienating being here than in a, you know, proper foreign country. But let’s face it, not that alienating really. In fact, it’s a lot like when I go to Scotland.

Though I’m still laughing at the Goon for having an out-of-office email that says ‘If your enquiry is urgent, contact my cell’, which makes it sound like he’s either gone to prison, or is an Al-Quaeda operative, or both. And I’ve been getting the sense that, downtown anyway, there are so many accents—and with Canadian citizenship being relatively easy to get, so many bona fide Canadians with foreign accents—that I’m nothing out of the ordinary.

Actually, the most striking linguistic difference so far is asking for directions. I mean, as an Englishman abroad I naturally avoid doing this on principle, but when I do (and I did a couple of times on Tuesday), I’d be, like, excuse me, I’m sorry to bother you, but I wonder if you could point me the way to King’s Street West? Whereas you’ll be standing at a junction waiting for the lights and some Torontovian will just say, Do you know the way to King’s? It feels a bit startling to me, but it’s obviously friendly and I like how it’s just assumed that you’ll be helpful. Not that I ever actually am.

Of course, it’s also cool when stuff is in French, especially when I find myself reading the French sign because it makes more sense than the English one (so far toilettes and aubergine). Or just when you get to laugh at French for being French: in one of my few bits of proper tourism so far, the Dutchman took me to the Royal Ontario Museum, where we visited the Bat Cave. Or, if you prefer, La grotte des chauves-souris. Oh French, you are so clunky! (Meanwhile, the Batcave emerges in French as la Batcave, which is just as amusing. Sometimes you just can’t win…) But I was really blown away when I was walking down to the University of Toronto and find myself on this street called Spadina Avenue (that’s [spə’daɪnə]) and suddenly Chinese is everywhere. Like, not just on the supermarkets and mobile phone shops, but the banks too—and not just a token gesture on the sign, but on the ‘check out this wacky interest rate!’ ads in the windows too. Cool! That’s proper linguistic adaptation.

About alarichall

http://www.alarichall.org.uk
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2 Responses to Days 16–18, August 9th-11th: the inevitable language post

  1. Have you ever been to Jersey? I ask because bizarrely they have Portuguese instructions in the phone boxes, because, as it turns out, there are a lot of immigrant Portuguese doing low skill jobs.

    I’ve flirted with the idea of putting on an American accent many times, but can’t get away from the feeling that it’s rather insulting – either in that I think people here can’t manage my English accent, or in that I can only manage a crude parody of how they talk. Though I do say ‘tuna’ and ‘tomato’ in American style when I order sandwiches, otherwise you just cause a lot of confusion.

    Will be interesting to see whether the US seems stranger to you than Canada…

  2. alarichall says:

    Ha ha, reminds me of a Texan friend who taught at Glasgow, who got this essay in about the Two-Tonic Peoples.

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