It’s Not Special Delively

We’re the first off the plane, or the first to the waiting area at least. I see a sun-weathered guy in khakis, boots, and an Outback-style hat, holding a sign: Road Scholar.

Our tour group of exactly that name has just arrived in Alice Springs from Melbourne and our fearless/some leader has waved us on ahead to hook up with our local guide and, we hope, our checked luggage. It’s late November, 2014.

I go over to introduce myself. I give him my name pretty well, I think, but it goes south as we shake hands.

Hi. I’m MAH-tin.

Eager to blend and to do him the courtesy of saying his name the way he says it, I take him at his word.

Nice to meet you, MAH-tin.

He frowns as much as anyone with his naturally cheery disposition can.

No. MAH-tin.

What subtlety am I missing? I don’t have a great ear for accents or a wonderful ability to replicate them, but I thought I’d done pretty well. I try again.


He shakes his head.


I look at him, and a little voice in the back of my head says, “Special DE-LI-VE-LEE.”

The speaker is a three-year-old who watches and rewatches and re-rewatches  The Backyardigans: an animated show with lovable monsters who break into dance in the midst of their fun adventures which all start . . . in their backyard! Get it? The Backyard-igans!

But Buddy’s favourite taped episode, Special Delivery, presents a pronunciation problem: that pesky “r”. He asks for it as Special De-li-ve-lee. But when I try that, things go south.

Look, Buddy!
Special De-li-ve-lee is on!

He stops dead in his tracks, looks at me with deep disfavour, and speaks slowly and with particular emphasis.

It’s NOT Special De-li-ve-lee.
It’s Spe-cial DE-LI-VE-LEE.

I know that I don’t always hear my tone of voice, but I would have sworn that I always hear the actual sounds I make just as others hear them. Over the years I’ve been disabused of this notion in part: I accept that I slur some names just a hair. Ed-mon-ton is what I mean to say; Emunton is closer to what I do say. Cal-ga-ry is the intention; Calgry is closer to the reality.

How far does it extend? I don’t know. I do know that what I hear myself saying is mediated by my intentions, my expectations, and my capacity to actually make the sound — this last being a factor that is always a problem for me in French, just as it still is for Buddy in English.

Coming back to this side of the world, I smile at MAH-tin.

Hi, Martin.

He beams. He has no idea why it took me so long, but now I’ve got it right.


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10 Responses to It’s Not Special Delively

  1. Jim Taylor says:

    Ah, yes. Like “Chinese laundly” (which my spellcheck just corrected, twice) and Laugh-In’s “Rotsa ruck!” I’m reminded of a joke we use to tell in our youth, about the man who went to a butcher’s shop and asked for a pound of kidleys (spellcheck did it again).
    “Don’t you mean ‘kidneys’?” asked the butcher.
    To which the customer retorted, “Didl’t I say so?”
    Everyone insists they have no accent; it’s other people who have accents.

    Jim T

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Jim T – Indeed. I guess we could all sing our dialogue — apparently the mechanics of singing neutralize at least some of the mechanics of accent production. See here.

  2. Your Roads/Rhodes Scholar is funnier than the chorister x 5 singing “God, rest ye …”. I imagine that I am hearing the “MAH” closer to “ma” in “manage.” But, then, the “H” is needed to soften that short vowel. I do wish you had this on audio tape. I know that we speak what we hear. I am less certain that we hear according to the way we speak, but MAH-tin provides the proof!

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Laurna – LOL – I considered doing this as a podcast equivalent – if I add it, I’ll let you know. The “mah” is not quite “maw” and not ma as in manage – maybe about as I hear Ma & Pa Kettle Go to the Ozarks.

  3. John Whitman says:

    Isabel – as I said recently in another reply, my problem is that I spell the way I speak.
    However, I take solace in the fact that if that is the only communications problem I have, I’m probably doing okay. And to prove my point, when I first typed solace, in this reply I typed it “solice”.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      John – It’s a wonder we can communicate at all, with all the ways there are for things to go wrong.

      • barbara carlson says:

        We had an Australian friend for a few years, who came to Ottawa from Alice Springs to teach in Casselman… then after 2 years was off to a city in China that had only opened to foreigners the year before.
        Lisa was eager to go, would be teaching English — Engrish — to Chinese who would have an Australian English accent… Too funny. They were so isolated, they had not heard of The Beatles. (This was about 1985.) They also crowded around Lisa everywhere she went — 50 or more people!

        • Isabel Gibson says:

          Barbara – Imagine that level of isolation – that an obvious foreigner was an object of fascination.

          • John Whitman says:

            Barbara’s comment about Australian English reminded me of ski trips to the Alps when I was stationed in Germany. I met many other skiers who I initially thought were Brits because of their perfect English and their accents, only to learn that they were Danes who had had Brits as their English teachers.

          • Isabel Gibson says:

            John – 🙂 That’s funny – but why not? Kids in my kid’s French Immersion class picked up the Canadian accent of their teacher and corrected me when I used Parisian pronunciation (in the few words I knew).

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