Articulation, Vocalization, Localization

A shout of laughter goes up from the auditorium of junior-high-school students, assembled to watch The Great Imposter.  The movie starring Tony Curtis is in one of its few set-in-Canada scenes.

On this last day of school before Christmas break, 1964, we’re in a mood to be amused, all right, but it’s not the script that has tickled us. Rather, it’s the slow and careful articulation by an obviously American actress of what is just as obviously an unfamiliar mouthful of that script.

“I’m from Sass Cat Choo Juan.”

“Oh no, you’re not!” is what every one of us is thinking.

As the scene plays on, I realize, maybe for the first time, that I know something I don’t remember learning. Without ever having been told it by a parent or teacher or older sibling, without ever having read it in a book, I know that familiarity breeds a certain slurring of syllables.

The laughter dying away in the auditorium is proof that I’m not the only one in the know, any more than I’m the only one with local pronunciation habits.

As Al Bertons (no relation to Pierre), we all learned how to pronounce “Saskatchewan” before we could spell it.  The result?  Not a smidgen of over-articulation or an ounce of hesitation in our delivery.

As Calgarians, we all say our city name in two syllables (Cal Gree), acknowledging the “a” by thinking about it rather than vocalizing it.  We don’t say Cal Guh Ree.  Or Cal Gare Ee, for that matter.

Until this moment, I’d never really thought about the fact that we sound like locals.  I’d certainly never thought about how hard it might be to fake that sound.

But in the 50 years since that pre-Christmas movie day, I’ve learned that I, for one, can sound like a local in only one locale.  And a pretty restricted locale, at that: It doesn’t even include my whole country.

As a young Westerner, I knew about a Canadian city I called Ta Ron Toe.  It would be years before I learned to even approximate the name its residents use: something like Trah Na. Even now I can’t match their slightly nasal twang.

As a traveller in the USA over the years, I learned about the local pronunciation of little places quite close to my locale: Core Da Lane (Coeur d’Hélène) and Peer (Pierre).  I learned about the local pronunciation of big places a little further afield: Nawlins (New Orleans) and Adalanna (Atlanta), among others.

As a traveller in Australia just last year, I learned about Cans (Cairns) and tried not to sound too self-conscious–too non-local–as I said that name without any hint of an “r.”

I also heard a truly learned Australian lecturer (who, naturally enough, said Cans both perfectly and perfectly naturally) make a passing reference to the American state he called Merry Land.  Maybe you, like me, call it Mare Uh Lund.  The locals call it Marilyn, without any hint of a “d.”

And so it is that life keeps offering epiphanies, albeit somewhat minor.

Knowing and vocalizing are not the same thing.

With all these place names, I’ve learned about but not learned to, if you see what I mean.  I no longer say them the way I see them, but I can’t say any of them with just the right degree of careless disregard.  I don’t suppose I ever will.

But I will, dagnab it, always sound like I come from Cal Gree.


Filed under Language & Communication

Garage-sale Triptych

We had a community garage sale on Saturday. It’s an activity that requires more patience and perseverance than attention. Today’s blog is a triptych, if you will, of what came to mind in the inevitable spaces:

  • Too Late Smart
  • Two Kinds of People
  • An Open Letter to His Excellency, the Right Honourable David Johnston

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Filed under New perspectives

What Do You Mean by That?

Razor sharp after a midnight departure from Vancouver and 15 hours in the air, I squint again at Question 9. The series of 11 questions had started with a seemingly innocuous lead-in: “Are you bringing into Australia . . . .” Now what’s in that dot-dot-dot is giving me fits on this day/night in early November, 2014.

And it had all started so well . . .

With a winning smile, the flight attendant hands me the Incoming Passenger Card issued by the Australian Department of Immigration and Citizenship. Little knowing what is to come, I take it with an answering smile.   Continue reading


Filed under Language & Communication

In the Face of Dreadful Odds

“That’s a story every Australian knows and, now, you do too.”

I stand there, brought up short. It isn’t the first time.

It’s been all of four hours since we met our Melbourne tour guide. We can see he’s lanky and given to vaguely Outbackish hats, but we’re still getting a feel for his communication style. Although consistently (and admirably) competent, our guides to date have exhibited no-two-alike personal styles: warm and a little raucous, witty and a little self-deprecatory, friendly and a little motherly, helpful and a little organized.  Just as if they were, you know, people.

So, on this lovely day in late November, 2014, I’m listening more for tone than for content as our guide prepares us to enter the ANZAC memorial—ANZAC being the Australia and New Zealand Army Corps. With respect to content, I am, in fact, thinking, “I get it, you know? Let’s get on with this.”   Continue reading


Filed under New perspectives


In the eternal-now and never-live-it-down that is the internet, you can see the interaction again and again. What’s more appropriate here than a spoiler alert is a patience-needed alert. Gibbs’ artless question doesn’t come until the 27-second mark of the 30-second #NCIS promo (I know! #forever), but it’s delivered so straight it’s #worththewait.

“Hashtag this could work, Boss.” Tony DiNozzo
“What’s a hashtag?” Leroy Gibbs

Leroy Gibbs, played by the ever-appealing #markharmon, is a little, umm, late to the #socialmedia game. I empathize. I, myself, first encountered hashtags on #Twitter only a few years ago. A helpful someone explained that they facilitated searches by topic.  Continue reading


Filed under Language & Communication

Wit and Wisdom in Wyoming

“Ah, Wyoming. It makes Nebraska look picturesque.”

Dismissing both Wyoming and Nebraska with one practiced parry, the wit represents the confluence of heritage (Italian), upbringing (New Jersey), and training (courtroom litigation). But, as we find to our sorrow the next day as we drive from Utah to Nebraska, the comment is not just witty: It’s true.   Continue reading


Filed under New perspectives, Travel

How to Estimate an Alligator’s Length

“To estimate an alligator’s length, convert the distance in inches
from the tip of the nose to the eye ridge into feet.”

I check it twice. Yes, that’s what it says, apparently dead serious, no pun intended.

The night before visiting St. Mark’s National Wildlife Refuge in Tallahassee, Florida, early in January, I was checking out their website to see what fabulous birds we could expect to see at that time of year. But under the “Wildlife and Habitat” menu option, it’s not birds that catch my eye but, rather, a navigation tab for alligators.

Uh oh. I had not thought about alligators.   Continue reading


Filed under Travel

Did Hamlet Shop, Do You Suppose?

He looks confused. I tilt my head, silently inviting him to speak. There is a pause as he works it out.

“We went so you could buy a necklace like Gram’s.”

It’s not really a question, but I answer anyway. “That’s right, but they were too heavy for me.”

Another pause, and I know we haven’t got to the nub of it yet.

“But Gram bought a dress.”

And there we have it: the source of the confusion. From a teenaged boy’s perspective, this perfectly ordinary excursion in the mid-1990s was one of life’s mysteries. We went to buy something for one person, and came home with something completely different for another person. How the heck did that happen?

By shopping.

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Filed under New perspectives

What It Is to Scale the Heights

Putting genteel Georgia behind us, we angle across rural northern Florida to the Gulf Coast and hang a right. And then we drive. And drive.

Most of those two days in early January is spent on the who-knew-it-was-so-wide Florida panhandle, an on-the-face-of-it ridiculous allocation of coastline that undoubtedly reflects some fascinating history of which we are, as Canadians, completely ignorant. To support the underdog, on the second day we stop for lunch somewhere in the don’t-sneeze-or-you’ll-miss-it bit of Alabama that borders the Gulf of Mexico. And then we drive. And drive.   Continue reading


Filed under New perspectives

To Boldly Go

“That’ll be three fifty, ma’am.”

I hand over a scruffy five-dollar bill for my bag of milk-chocolate mini bars. “Make it so.”

The convenience-store attendant’s head snaps up. “Did you just say, ‘Make it so’?”   Continue reading


Filed under Language & Communication