Erikka Askeland: Revelling in our idiomatic differences

The word 'tomatoes' famously has different pronunciations. Picture: Getty
The word 'tomatoes' famously has different pronunciations. Picture: Getty
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Consider the word “Don”, short for the man’s name Donald. Then speak of the rising of the morning sun, “dawn”.

Unlike the majority of you reading this, to me both words sound exactly the same. Call it my tin ear, but no matter how long I have lived in the UK rather than North America, where I was born and raised, it is a linguistic bridge that is too far for me to cross.

I can’t hear it, and I can’t actually gurn my face adequately to make the two words distinguishable. Intellectually, I know that some people pronounce “dawn” as if it was spelt “dorn”. But since I insist on pronouncing the “r” in words, talking of the sunrise this way would make me sound an ass – as opposed to an arse. Because I, along with my Irish friends, speak in a manner that linguists describe as “rhotic”. This means we pronounce the “r” at the end of a word before a hard consonant, like, for example, “hard”.

Vive la différence, I say – mainly because I studied 
French at school. But just because I ostensibly speak the same language as most people in Britain do, it does not mean that we always understand 
each other.

Other than the Don/dawn issue, I have largely adjusted to British English. I often acquit myself capably in that well-known social game upon meeting or hearing someone new, “place the accent”. I cringe inwardly when visiting North American relatives speak loudly of “fanny packs” rather than bumbags. Same as when they are talking about pants. The urge to hiss under my breath, “no, say ‘trousers’, no-one wants to think about the state of your pants” is almost irresistible. And let’s not even talk about the sniggering that occurs when it is mentioned that my step-mum’s name is Randie.

Trouble can happen when you use the same words but deploy them with just slightly different meanings. For example, if I say you are “quite good”, I mean it. It’s a bit better than good, actually. Almost very good. Except the man in my life, a proper speaker of British English, says the meaning is quite the opposite. It is useful that he pointed this out to me relatively early on in our relationship. Imagine how some poor bloke could be made crestfallen by a mere “that was quite good, darling” when she actually really enjoyed it. It is important to clear these little discrepancies up.

But yet, the fun of the varieties of language in both North American and British English are such that I will never take the song’s advice, the one about toMAYtos and toMAHtoes, and “call the whole thing off”. Although I do persist in my odd way of saying oreGAHno. Or is it oREGano? I sometimes get confused which is the one I tend to use.

As a newspaper woman, my colleagues are on constant alert for when a North Americanism slips into my copy. Most times, I just shrug my shoulders and Anglicise (as opposed to Anglicize – not even Canadians use the ugly “zee”). But while I have been told by sniffier Brits “we gave you a language, use it properly”, some colourful phrases are keepers as far as I am concerned.

North Americans may marvel at such wonderful British idioms as “gobsmacked”, “snog” and “pavement”. The Scots ones are pretty vivacious, too. I feel better knowing that some people are “numpties”, while others are “awfy braw” and that the weather is often “dreich”. But give the new worlders their due. Why simply dismiss the rowdy behaviour of those sitting in the “cheap seats” when you could refer to them as the “peanut gallery” – a phrase that derived from the theatrical Vaudeville tradition, where criticism was passed on the acts on stage by those near the front throwing inexpensive salted snacks. I nearly came a cropper too, when I referred to the malign disease “cooties”. I was astounded to realise there was no British equivalent to the highly infectious contamination little girls accuse boys of having, and vice versa.

Having kept the linguistic imprint of North America deep in my brain, I will always be able to converse upon the topic of how the drug store down the block is kitty-corner to the gas station. Although I can also note how the chemists down the lane is opposite the square from the petrol station. I suppose that makes me practically bilingual.