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’Hélene) 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.