When I took my trip over to the US a couple of years back I found that I was asked two types of questions, over and over. The first was: "Why did you come here?" or "what are you doing over here?" The second was: "Oh my God, are you English?" Or: "Oh my God, are you British?" And, a few times: "Oh my God! Are you Irish?" And on one occasion, I remember, the two questions merged, resulting in the following memorable conversation. It happened while I was standing in a queue for theatre tickets in New York:
WOMAN: Oh my God, are you English? What did you come over here for, you have such wonderful theatre over there!
ME: No, I'm Australian actually.
WOMAN: Oh. I see.
ME: No, no, we have theatre in Australia too! It's a recent invention!
And that was the end of the conversation, and the relationship, too, for that matter.
The reason why I mention this all now is owing to the discussion about a side issue raised in the course of a political post by one of my favourite US bloggers, Paco - because in attempting an Australian accent (in the title) Paco may have unintentionally come up with something far closer to 19th century cockney. It is, I think, an example of a curious linguistic effect caused by the long separation of the US and the UK from one another, and Australia from both. We share the same language, pronounce the same language differently, and hear our different pronunciations of the same language differently again. "Two countries divided by a common language" doesn't quite cover it anymore, especially when you throw into the mix other Anglosphere countries such as New Zealand and South Africa and Canada.
The thing is, as I discovered, being in possession of an accent that sounds like an Australian accent to Australian ears is entirely different to being in possession of an accent that sounds like an Australian accent to American ears. And, for that matter, an accent that sounds like an English accent to English ears may not be the same thing as an accent that sounds like an English accent to American ears, or an accent that sounds like an English accent to Australian ears; and while a US listener may be able to perfectly identify where a US accent comes from, a listener from Australia may not even be able to tell with any certainty whether it comes from Canada or Texas.
Certainly not me. I might be an Australian but I can't even remember sometimes whether I'm supposed to say 'napkin' or 'serviette'; I don't know anymore whether you say 'prawn' or 'shrimp'; and I sure as hell don't understand what the difference is between a 'state' and a 'territory'. Give me a few more years and I'll start calling utes 'lorries' and get confused about that, too. When it comes to identifying US accents, hey, I'll have a go at identifying them, but you won't get me much further than saying 'it's from the north' or 'it's from the south' or 'um, is he/she from New York?'
But remember, this is all coming from a person, me, who probably thinks that Idaho is a city in Florida, Ulysses S. Grant got his middle name because his parents were admirers of Harry S. Truman, Harrison Ford is one of the presidents of the US, that Abraham Lincoln settled Salt Lake City before being shot by Edward Kennedy, that Teddy Roosevelt wrote the bill of independence after winning the civil war against General Custer at Lexington Green, and that there are 57 US states, including South Carolina, North Carolina, West Carolina, and Nor-nor-east Virginia. Just as you, a person from the US (except those of you who are not) probably think (unless you do not) that Sydney is the capital city of Australia, that Canberra is the name of the island separate to the mainland, that Tasmania is the name for a type of insanity developed by overseas travellers isolated in the Australian outback, that Julia Gillard is Australia's first elected woman president, or that Melbourne is the capital city of the eastern state of Victoria (okay, that last one is just too ridiculous to believe).
Why should somebody from the US trust a judgement about their accent coming from me? Why should I necessarily expect their judgements about my accent to be any better - or worse? Is it any wonder that the way I hear how they say what they say, whenever they say it, is vastly different to the way they hear how they say what they say, whenever they say it?
Australian accents sound like English accents to Americans. American accents probably sound Canadian to the English. The Canadians sound just a little bit English to Australians. The English probably think the Canadians sound like a cross between South Africans and New Zealanders. And God knows what the Canadians think of all this. (I assume they're too busy fighting off the hordes of savage caribou to be reading this blog.) And when - dear God - we try and imitate one another we often end up sounding like a parody of a send up of a satire of a second-hand imitation of someone else entirely.
It doesn't help - or perhaps it does - that our national stereotypes abroad are so very very different to those national stereotypes at home. Folks from the US and the UK sometimes seem to think that an ordinary day in the life of an Australian involves swimming through a raging torrent while fighting off starving crocodiles, dodging the attacks of a variety of venomous snakes, jellyfish, marsupials, lizards, and hummingbirds, before arriving at home to have a lamb chop for dinner, with meat pie for dessert. Well none of that is true, except for the crocodiles bit, and most of them are tame now anyway. Given the popularisation on the telly of weirdos and whackos like Crocodile Dundee or the Crocodile Hunter, it's no surprise that nobody recognised me as an Australian when I was holidaying overseas. Quite aside from anything else, where was my knife?
It was ever thus. Some 500-and-a-bit years ago when Christopher Columbus took a trip over the seas and found the Indians over there, he mistook them for, well, Indians. Maybe if he'd carried on to India he would have mistaken the Indians for Egyptians, or Chaldeans, or Sumerians, or Akkadians, or some other, wilder variant of humanity. It is pleasant and, on the whole, rather complimentary to realise that, as an Australian, you are seen by many Americans as some other exotic species of humanity, be it English, Irish, South African, or miscellaneous. To realise that one person from one nation can actually seem like several people from several nations, depending on who they are talking to, makes the world seem wider, more strange, and more wonderful than it has hitherto appeared.
What I am saying - well, I don't know what I am saying, but I guess what I am saying is that, in this atmosphere of mutual misunderestimation, and incomprehensions arising out of failed attempts to clear up past misinterpretations of certain international preconceptions that had arisen previously, an international environment of tolerance and mutual respect has developed. And isn't that nice.
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