There are times when my mental world grinds to a halt after something I have said. A phrase so particularly and enigmatic that I must stop and consider the universe; a trick of words so hilarious or stupid or amazing that I must marvel at my own tongue’s ability not to fall out of my mouth in horror. At other times I stop because I am not sure what has happened, how the words have emerged from me. I wonder at how it is that I have just said such a thing, as though my mandibles were possessed, as though some ghost was in the machine of my articulators.
Sometimes, it is a menu-item so amazing my life halts: “Multiflavoured razor clams.” At other times, it is something that emerges naturally from a conversation, a perfect, globule summary phrase that tickles me beyond comprehension: “Porcelain dildo artisanry.” When the words finally tumble free into the ether, my existence seems to take a sharp inhalation, as though the world has started to rotate in alternate directions.
Never has this been so apparent as when I am picking up Australian lingo.
My workplace bubbles and seethes with Australians, who slither around every corner, their dulcet lack of hard r’s an airy whisper in the atmosphere. Here and there a susurrus Scot or a lilting Brit might let loose a few European phonetics, but for the post part the aural nature of our school is distinctly antipodean.
As such, it pays to simply go with the flow. Most of the kids call an h a “haaaaaaytch” and sometimes, when I am tired or not paying attention, I do to. I lead the children down the hall to the toilet, not the washroom, and I teach maths, not math. Our staff meeting happens tomorrow arvo, and arvo is an actual thing that people on this planet say as though it is a real word.
Our team meetings feature regular clashes as we fight over the distinct pronunciations of different words, and how those words apparently mutate and acquire gangrene as they cross the Atlantic or Pacific oceans. We gleefully imitate one another’s accents in joyous, slack-jawed buffoonery, shocked that anyone could every misplace so many letters, bewildered that certain vowels apparently were all shipped over on the Mayflower with none left back in the old country. Even shapes offer no solace: I had to bring my laptop and send multiple links to convince my team that “trapezoid” was just as cromulent a word as “trapezium,” and no Victorian-era snobbery about the yahoos on the colonies would get me to teach the hildren any different.
For our big assembly performance, we wrote a number of songs about farming and food production, but the American ESL teacher made sure that several of the verses hinged on the words potato and tomato rhyming. Unfortunately, with three out for four homeroom teachers believing that those two words did not, actually, rhyme with one another, every time we practised together the clash was unbearable. We encouraged our children to sing louder and more vibrantly, to quash the other classes who sang alternate vowels or different emphases, and ended up with a mashed goop of worldly tunesmithing.
Occasionally I will come across a Canadian at my international school or out in the wilds of the Suzh, and we sneak off together, like kids to a treehouse, and talk at each other in the sounds of our country. Every time someone says “pop,” I know instinctively what they mean. When they whisper the word “toque,” I smell the scent of pine and maple, of wide open parks and enormous lakes. Another Canadian rounds out every /o/ in her sentence and I hear the gentle breeze slipping across the prairies. We giggle at those goons using the word “beanie,” and we dream of tobogganing down the snowy, crystalline hills of our shared childhoods in the Great White North, possibly while carrying a mickey.
But overwhelmed by other national groups, it’s easier to simply acquire the most frequently used terms, much as it pains me. I actively refer to and drink “soda,” cringing all the while. I tell people to put their garbage into the rubbish bin, even though I imagine myself looking like an elderly British granny, in a great lacy frock, looking out over a prim garden (not a backyard) behind her Tudor-style home. I don’t even giggle when all of my coworkers call flip-flops “thongs,” and how we all should wear our thongs this weekend because the weather has finally turned nice, and has anyone seen my thongs, they are black and thin and smell like feet.
I know that somewhere out there, my language brethren and sistren are speaking the words of my childhood, the words I was born with. I toe the line because communication is more about being understood than standing your ground and dying on every hill. Outnumbered by other nationalities, I hold the flickering candleflame of my own speech close to my heart, even if I don’t hold it on my tongue. With every sentence I utter, I punctuate it with a whispered, unheard “Eh?” which flutters off into the wind, reminding me, quietly, of where I am from.