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Wednesday: [w] Drift and Anchor (I: Alien)

I am very frequently mistaken for an American.

This makes some amount of sense. Upon realizing, somewhere around seventh grade, that I never, ever wanted to sound like someone who came from my end of the St. John River Valley, I began obsessively patterning my accent after American television. (Unfortunately, this was the late eighties, so it was impossible to avoid a certain modicum of, like, southern Californian mallspeak, y'know.) Then I proceeded to move to North Carolina for two years. This will confuse most people.

Even without that mitigating factor, some are confused by dint of ignorance concerning what remains. Many Canadian accents are unfamiliar to those from away -- most of us don't speak SCTV Standard, after all. A friend's trick works well here: if you spot someone with a North American accent you can't pinpoint, ask if they're Canadian. The Americans will smile and correct you; the Canadians will be thrilled.

In Britain, I had gotten rather accustomed to being treated as both American and foreign. While my accent took care of the broader classification problem, my prevailing nationality and cultural identity still bordered on the invisible unless I took pains to make it otherwise. While many take pains to point out how strong and strange my accent is, few can identify it. Some are more gracious about the correction than others. (I eventually vowed, not long after moving here, that I would one day rent a billboard: "Telling a Canadian that she's American because Canada is in North America? Not clever, not funny, and not even remotely original. Now go away, you misguided pedant." Then I realized that I'd have to tote the billboard around.)

Living overseas left me significantly more identified with my country of birth, to be fair. There's a Canadian flag on my living room wall; I hang it in the window during significant football matches as a means of self-defense, a sort of disclaimer. (When the town is covered in England flags, it's time to hunker down.) I've become much more attuned to my nation's politics, and more deeply absorbed in its political satire. I grew up a fan of CBC Radio One, but became an aficionado just as soon as broadband meant that I could have it on all the time. There are piles of books by Pierre Trudeau and Peter Gzowski on my bedroom floor.

There was a time, when I was much younger and things were not so bright, where I was rather ashamed of my nationality; I most certainly wasn't proud of my home province -- a backwater, only relatively recently bootstrapped from the dirt (and not entirely there yet), viewed with disdain by most everyone else -- and I didn't know enough to realize that New Brunswick was not Canada, that the river valley wasn't Canada, that my home town was most certainly not Canada. That's when I began to purge the river from my voice.

I wouldn't take that particular move back, since I like my accent as it stands and I've never been fond of what I could have picked up in French immersion. I do, however, pay the price of myriad invisibilities.

In Britain, I'm a different kind of alien. In America, I'm part of the landscape. When I fly back to visit family, the people at the airport process me as foreign, then tell me: "Welcome home."

It's not a bad thing. But I find myself making almost compulsive reference to Being From Away when I travel. Not, you understand, that there's much choice; how can I give you my zip code, nice lady at the cash register, when I don't have one? How can I tell you what size I am when I don't know what the numbers mean anymore? How do you card me when I don't have any ID which you recognize? Still, it's sometimes extraneous. I feel self-conscious. What is a Canadian, who lives in Britain, when she's visiting America? Why should she be unfamiliar with the surroundings, with the relative proportions of meal sizes, with sweeteners and colas, with the colour of money and the flow of traffic?

Everything, after a fashion, no matter how many times I come back, becomes a novelty. A shiny thing. Unusual. I no longer have a sense of corporate monoculture, because I'm too sensitive to the localizations. Everything is familiar, but everything is strange.

It might be a fair trade.

Posted by Wednesday Burns-White at July 4, 2005 11:23 PM


Comment from: Wednesday posted at July 4, 2005 10:16 PM

In the mirror universe, it's okay if Wednesday with a beard doesn't post about webcomics!

Comment from: Susan posted at July 4, 2005 11:04 PM

Yay Canada! Yay New Brunswick! Yay Fredericton! I'm originally from central Canada (Ottawa to be exact) and moved to the Maritimes by choice. My sister is completely opposite and moved to New York. Go Figure. My parents are terrified that I'll pick up a Maritime accent.;)


"Slow men working in trees"

Comment from: kirabug posted at July 4, 2005 11:34 PM

It certainly sounds better than being someone who's made it as far south as Florida, as far west as Grand Junction, CO, and as far north as Massachusettes.

In this area (PA/DE/NJ), visiting Canada is regarded the same as visiting another state. Upon learning that I've never left the US, friends comment, "Well, you've been to Canada, haven't you?" like it's the most natural thing in the world. The closest I've been to Canada is the Adirondaks of NY and the closest I've been to off the continent is Westbury, Long Island. My goal this year is to get a passport - my goal next is to make it to a foreign country, even if it's Canada. :)

Comment from: Danalog posted at July 5, 2005 1:10 AM

I'm pretty sure, if you're from a northeastern US state, Canada is less of a foreign country than Texas is

Comment from: Eric Burns posted at July 5, 2005 1:18 AM

Humorously, I'm from that same river valley, only from the other side of it, and North a bit.

I generally have little or no river in my voice either -- my parents are both from Central or Southern Maine, so I grew up in a home without the immersion of Acadian dialects. However, when by chance Weds and I ran into a person I'd gone to school with all the way back to Auntie Francis's Nursery School (which was in New Brunswick, no less), the Valley crept back into my speech almost instantly.

It was oddly comforting. And Weds was reasonably glad I could swear in Valley French.

Comment from: Steven E. Ehrbar posted at July 5, 2005 2:37 AM

In this area (PA/DE/NJ), visiting Canada is regarded the same as visiting another state

See, I grew up in a house about seventeen miles due north of Canada and 25 miles due east of Canada. It was easier to visit Canada than another state.

Comment from: siwangmu posted at July 5, 2005 3:40 AM

Does anyone else think all this talk about the river in your voice sounds ridiculously poetic?

Comment from: SeanH posted at July 5, 2005 5:53 AM

siwangmu: it beats having the private school in your voice ;)

I visited Canada for a month last summer - Ontario and Quebec - and loved it; I've not yet quite ruled out moving there one day.

Canada's effect on my accent - and general demeanour - is interesting. If I go to France or Germany, I'll blend in as much as possible, probably because I speak the languages. In Canada, the opposite happens. The longer I stay there, the more English I become. I already have the accent you get when you go to a London private school, but it becomes stronger, more pronounced. I become impossibly, archetypally English. I really couldn't say why.

Comment from: LordLucan posted at July 5, 2005 6:14 AM

When I'm in USA/Canada I always get asked if I'm British or Australian.

After 1.5 years of living in the USA I've taken to replying "Australian. G'day mate!"

It releives the monotony...

Comment from: Tephlon posted at July 5, 2005 7:03 AM

What is a Canadian, who lives in Britain, when she's visiting America?

A Tourist? :)

Comment from: andustar posted at July 5, 2005 8:26 AM

A 'St John River[s?]' actually *exists*? that's... cute.

Comment from: One Timer posted at July 5, 2005 8:52 AM

To hand out some stereotypes I picked up while travelling... I found that if you meet someone who talks like an American and acts like an American, but says they're from Canada, they're most likely from Toronto. Possibly because those from the "T Dot" are practically American or American's trying to disguise they're nationality don't know too many Canadian cities.

Also, as a head's up. If an Aussie asks to dink you, don't be offended, they'd just like to get a ride on the back of your bike.

Comment from: Bo Lindbergh posted at July 5, 2005 10:25 AM

Music: "Englishman in New York", performed by Sting.

Comment from: Kazriko Redclaw posted at July 5, 2005 12:27 PM

Kirabug: Grand Junction, CO is a good place to go if you're going westward. (Alot better than California. GJ-CO is where I live, after all.) Me, I've been as far as California west and Lafayette, LA in the east. I wonder if anyone who reads the blog is from that place.

Comment from: TheNintenGenius posted at July 5, 2005 12:42 PM

kirabug: The attitude toward Canada is even more like that here in Michigan, to the point where usually if someone asks you if you've ever been outside the country, they qualify the statement with "other than Canada." Of course, sharing three lakes as a border (as well as having multiple points of access into Canada) helps quite a bit in fostering that attitude. (And yeah, I have been in Canada. It's a beautiful country.)

Comment from: quiller posted at July 5, 2005 3:08 PM

I grew up in Vermont, so learning French was the primary language option in school. So I spent 5 years learning French, than spent a year in France to help solidify it, and promptly moved to Los Angeles where Spanish is nearly the primary language.

Of course, it is only partly true that I grew up in Vermont. But one of the things I had to figure out in my life was the answer to the question of where I'm from. My family has moved about a fair bit, I have no real memories of where I first lived in Wisconsin, we seemed to move every 4 or 5 years when we were in New England, and I've been out here for the last 17 years or so. So Vermont is merely my choice of where I grew up based on what I think were my formative years. And the fact that Hanover, NH is nearly in Vermont.

I sometimes wonder what sort of accent I actually have? It just seems American to me. Picked up more from nightly newscasts and NPR than from any of my fellow students. When I was in France my fellow students and I got mistaken for British sometimes, I think because we could actually speak French. (Mind you, my 5 years of American French classes maybe made me the equivalent of a 2nd or 3rd year French student from Germany, but Europeans have the advantage of plenty of opportunities to practice their language skills and a practical reason to learn them.)

Comment from: Aerin posted at July 5, 2005 4:12 PM

I've lived in the Southwest US my entire life (first in Phoenix and now in the LA area), yet I'll occasionally slip into a British accent without even being aware of it. Must be the theatre background.

Comment from: Alun Clewe posted at July 5, 2005 8:03 PM

Oddly, I've been mistaken for Canadian despite having grown up in Southern California. Or for English, occasionally. Apparently many people think I have some sort of non-American accent, though there's no good reason I should. I've been more than once through an exchange like the following:

"Where are you from?"

"Southern California."

"No, I mean originally."

"Yes, I grew up in Southern California."

"Then why do you have that accent?"

As I said, there's no good reason I should have an accent; I certainly didn't get it from my parents, since this doesn't happen to them. (In fact, at least once my father was asked if I was adopted, because of my "accent".) My best guess is that it's because I've always read a lot from a very young age, so I learned much of my vocubulary and diction from reading before hearing the words spoken aloud, so I pronounce things slightly differently from most people. But that's only a guess, and I don't know if it's the real explanation.

Comment from: kirabug posted at July 5, 2005 11:05 PM

Alun, maybe the problem is that you're a native :)

My cousin's wife is a Colorado native, and nobody can figure out her accent. Apparently only a small fraction of the folks in their area (Longmont) are actually *natives* of Colorado - most being either east-coast or west-coast transplants - and nobody knows what a native is supposed to sound like.

Comment from: Alun Clewe posted at July 6, 2005 10:17 AM

Interesting explanation, but it doesn't really work in my case. For one thing, the usual native Southern California accent is pretty much the same accent that the vast majority of people on TV talk with, so it's not one that's going to strike people as odd and unrecognizeable. For another thing, there are lots of native Southern Californians around here, and this doesn't happen to most of them. And for yet another, this happens even when I'm traveling out of the area; it's not just that people don't think I speak like a Southern Californian, but that I don't speak like an American at all.

On the flip side, I've been told by an Englishman that my American accent is very mild...which I suppose may be the same thing from another viewpoint.

Comment from: BenPop posted at July 6, 2005 6:52 PM

Heh, I may have the most messed-up story. I'm the son of two military brats, one who ending up in San Diego and the other ending up in San Francisco. They moved to Chicago where I was born. After a brief stint in Tacoma, I lived in the Southeast US for about 7 years, in Virginia, panhandle Florida, and South Carolina, then 3 years in Utah, then back to the Tacoma area.

I'd say my dialect follows most closely to Californian, due to my parents (even then I'm not sure), and I can switch to Southern and Utah really quickly if I meet someone from those places.

Comment from: gwalla posted at July 6, 2005 7:33 PM

Apparently, the Northen California dialect is nearly identical to a Southern California one, except the latter does not include the adjective "hella" (or the children's equivalent, "hecka"). In college, a guy I knew thought I listened to a lot of Too Short albums until he realized that Too Short comes from Oakland.

Comment from: siwangmu posted at July 7, 2005 6:58 AM

Well, as long as we're sharing:

Born North Carolina, moved at six weeks to West Point, NY, moved at 5 to St. Louis, MO, moved at 8 to Sacramento, CA, moved at 15 to Chapel Hill, North Carolina--left after a year for North Carolina School of Science and Math in Durham, came back to college in Chapel Hill, get asked where I'm from...

Uh, Chapel Hill? Only it's a total lie because I only lived here for a year, so sometimes I just say "California and Chapel Hill," which explains why I say y'all but I also say Hella (and did, in fact, say hecka all during junior high school. ::sigh:: Such an awkward word. Just try it. Say "hecka cool" and don't feel like a moron, I dare you).

So add my "would you like a glass of watuh" New York years to whatever influence Missouri had to California and NC, and toss in the geek's typical penchant for British humor and absorption of phrases like hell of and asshat, and you get...

a mess.

Func fact (or despicable lie told by a high school teacher to a gullible audience):

The California accent has in fact been mocked (and I don't mean the Valley Girl thing). Apparently most people say Montana with "tan" and we say it (forgive my attempts to describe this) sort of Mon-tya-na (like Mon-tee-anna squished together). The story I heard was that, especially since the Katherine Hepburn accent was "standard" until partway through the century, the California way was heard as an actual difference, and that's where Bugs Bunny came from. "Nyahh, what's up Doc?"

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