Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Leaping Over Language Barriers

First published in The Oxford Journal on Wednesday, November 13, 2013 by Sara Mattinson.

Last June, there was this mother-daughter road trip to Ontario. Our route was a loop, down through the States then after a week of visits with family and friends, back home through Canada.  
Stopping for lunch in Quebec at a TransCanada service centre, we ordered food from A&W and I said to the woman behind the counter, “May I have a fork, please?”
I rarely use my high school French because my accent is so awful, no one responds to me in French anyway, which is good because I’m limited to high school French vocabulary drills: I know words, not sentences. 
But since I knew the French word for fork, I added, “Une fourchette.”
Before she handed it to me, the server held up the white plastic fork wrapped in plastic.
“You say?”
“Fork,” I told her.
“Fo-ork,” she repeated.
Putting our tray of food down on a table, I said to my mother, “Well, that was nice. I taught someone something today.”
I imagined the woman going home and using her new English word all weekend. 
“Fo-ork,” she’d say over and over until someone in her family yelled, “ArrĂȘte! Fermez la bouche!” (Oh, so apparently I do know a sentence in French.)
If you think this can only happen between an English Canadian and a French Canadian, let me share with you the exchange between a Nova Scotian and an Ontarian.
My husband called me at work to ask, “I thought I’d cook hamburg patties for dinner. Do you want one?”
And I answered, “Jane and I are eating in Truro before the movie. I won’t need dinner.”
He laughed. “Okay, then, I mean lunch.”
Except when my born-and-raised Nova Scotia country boy pronounced the word lunch, it was like that woman in Quebec pronouncing her new English word. He rolled it off his tongue like a strange flavour: “Lu-u-nch.”
We even confuse the puppy because she gets a mid-day meal. When I’m feeding her, she knows it as lunch; when Dwayne feeds her, he says, “Do you want your dinner?” 
You’d be surprised, I’m sure, to know this debate happens rather frequently in our household because to me, the meals of the day are breakfast-lunch-dinner while my husband adheres to the breakfast-dinner-supper combination. Where I come from, supper is a casual dinner, like bacon and eggs or grilled cheese sandwiches, so sometimes supper in our house really is supper and every so often I end up eating dinner twice in one day. 
If that’s the worst miscommunication we have in our marriage, we’re pretty lucky. 
It shows how important an open mind and a wide-ranging education is in order to communicate with people, even in our own country. These anecdotes aren’t examples of dialects (my pronunciation of “butch-er” versus my husband’s “boot-cher”) but of semantics, the meaning of words. I think it’s rather fun that within a rather homogeneous nation, we can still find ways of confusing, and teaching, each other.
Speaking of fun, for a magazine article, I interviewed a family from England who now live on Prince Edward Island. The teenaged girls told me about the snow that fell during their first Christmas here. 
“We spent all day outside playing in the snow and rolling around in the garden,” they said.  
When I explained that here, a garden involved flowers and vegetables and that what they really meant was the yard, their mother piped up and said, “In England, a yard is concrete. Usually where you park the car.”
Makes travelling through Quebec and ordering “un hamburger” not seem quite so foreign now. 
My favourite semantic mix-up happened  during a trip to Scotland in 2010 when the hostess of our B&B in Aberfeldy recommended a restaurant in neighbouring Weem. Since it was within walking distance yet through the countryside, she said to us, “I’ll give you a torch for the walk home.”
Having grown up reading Enid Blyton and Agatha Christie, I knew that a torch was a flashlight but when I looked at my husband’s face, it was clear he was picturing a stick with an oil-soaked rag wrapped around one end that we would set on fire to light our way home. And he was excited about that. He was having a Braveheart moment.
I was very sorry to douse the flames of his excitement by informing him that his new Scottish word had the same meaning as a familiar English one. 
C’est dommage

1 comment:

  1. Sara-- I laughed out loud at the torch story and how timely this blog for me. I just had my relatives from Quebec here for three days. Dinner, diner, souper, supper, lunch --petit dejeuner-- all jumbled. But, well, were still able to manger and drink and be merry. Language barriers and all.