Say What?

And we’re coming up on the county symmetry, on the left.

As we boogie down the highway, our guide is narrating notable bits in our surroundings, as usual, and I am listening oh so carefully, also as usual. OK, my attention may have slipped just a bit. Huh? What was that about symmetry?

I am about to ask the Big Guy what I missed, when a graveyard comes into view. On the left.

Ah. Not ‘symmetry’ but ‘cimitry’ ““ what I would call a ‘seh-meh-ter-ee,’ enunciating every syllable.

For a mix of Americans, Canadians, New Zealanders, and Australians, we’ve done pretty well so far, bridging the inevitable communication gaps. Our everyday guides take the lead, substituting North American terminology for their own, apparently effortlessly. And so we travel in a bus, not a coach. We pass sheep and cattle ranches, not stations. We line up on the sidewalk, we don’t queue up on the pavement.

But, of course, as cemetery/cimitry/symmetry illustrates, terminology is only part of the problem: there’s the pronunciation too.

And these are the bush tuckah motifs.

Puzzlement murmurs through our assembled group, but not quite so loudly that our learned expert on Aboriginal art hears it. She carries on until someone coughs, and then coughs it up.

What’s tuckah?

Having read novels about Australia in my youth and watched the Crocodile Dundee movies — surely all the academic preparation required for a trip Down Under — I’m already up to speed on ‘tucker’ as a local word for food. In the mouths of Australians, though, just as ‘river’ becomes ‘rivah,’ so too does ‘tucker’ become ‘tuckah.’ Similarly, for our domestic flights over this vast land, our program leader directs us not to worry about liquids, but to be sure to exclude ‘shahps’ from our carry-on bags.

All these delightfully softened words leave me wondering, just a little uneasily, what our North American ‘r’ sounds like to them. Is it the engaging rolled ‘r’ of Spanish speakers or the Sean-Connery-esque Scottish brogue, perhaps? Or — and here’s where the unease creeps in — is it something a little harsher? Something more akin to the pirate’s extended and almost nasal growl: Arrr. Oh dear.

It’s not a question I can broach in a group, not if I hope for a candid response. But three weeks into our trip, I have a chance to experiment with adapting my own accent to blend in a little bettah.

Arriving in Alice Springs, we meet our next site coordinator: Martin. Greeting him, I soften my standard pronunciation to replicate his name as I hear them say it.

Hello, Mahtin.

The results are not exactly what I had hoped for.

No, he says, it’s Mahtin.

OK, then. I throw up my mental hands and go back to being in the world as I am.

On our second-last night as a group, our indomitable leader tells us about a famous didgeridoo player, William Barton, whose CDs with an orchestra are available online.

Bahton, she repeats helpfully, spelled just as it sounds.

Arrr, matey, maybe not quite as that sounded.

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2 Responses to Say What?

  1. Jim Taylor says:

    You’ve done an admirable job of transliterating ‘Strine — did you take Linguistics at any time in the past? My difficulty comes when I try to express phonetically some of the expressions from my mother’s Northern Irish childhood, for which there seems to be no English equivalents whatsoever.
    “Styuchie” is the only one I can recall at the moment. But there was also a term for a ditch filled with liquid manure. And a kind of squint… Perhaps if I had ever been able to spell the words, I might be able to remember them.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Jim T – No, never studied linguistics – or phonetics, for that matter. I struggle with the dictionary pronunciation guides! In the Wellington NZ airport, an expatriate Colombiana (10 years in NZ) asked me sort of surreptitiously what I thought of the NZ accent. I allowed as how I noticed it when our “ate-teen” [for 18] became “aydeen” in their hands/mouths. The she said, “They don’t move their mouths!” Compared to Spanish, that’s certainly true. But your point about remembering words better/bettah if you can spell them is akin, I think, to remembering things better if you know their names. From trees to birds, the name is a handy shorthand form as well as memory jogger. Maybe spelling works the same way, if only by giving us a handle for remembering their shape. As for having to have a word for a ditch filled with liquid manure – well, ’nuff said.

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