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