Sunday, October 09, 2011

Lost in translation

``SO, what part of England are you from?"

This is the phrase an Australian in America hears the most, after "Pardon?" and "Sorry, what?"

Usually it's delivered with a knowing smile, as if to say "See, I'm a well-travelled individual, I can pick an Englishman when I hear one."

And then you have to let them down gently that, actually, you're from Australia. AUSTRALIA. No, not Austria. It's in the southern hemisphere. Yes, with the kangaroos, that's the one. For some reason, it seems most Americans are only able to detect two accents - their own, and what they think is British.

I guess you can't really blame them. Most people are exposed to other accents through TV shows and films, and most English-speaking TV shows and films come from America or Britain. They just don't hear Aussie accents here often enough to detect the differences between us and the Poms. The only Australian accent most Americans are familiar with is Steve Irwin, so unless you leap about shouting "Crikey, look at that croc!" they'll just assume you're a member of the royal family.

Now I'm worried that, after a month living in New York, the accent-deaf American ear is rubbing off on me. The other night at a party I asked a girl how long it had been since she'd left London.

"I'm from Sydney," she deadpanned. (In my defence, Young MC's Bust A Move was playing very loudly in the background, and it's impossible to really hear someone speaking when that song is on, particularly during the verse about the girl dressed in yellow who says "hello".)

Of course most of the time Australians are lucky if they can be understood at all in America. Last week I totally perplexed a waitress by asking for a "Diet Coke", which she obviously heard as "doy-ut cark" and, rightly, had no idea how to respond. I could have been threatening to hold up the place in Lithuanian, for all she knew.

After three goes I finally had to do my best "American girl ordering a Diet Coke" impression just to get a drink.

Some Australians have gone to great lengths to avoid acquiring an American accent.

My American friends have also taken great delight in parodying my pronunciation of the word "no".

"Noy! Noy! No-eee!" they shriek, collapsing in laughter, prompting me to pout something like "OY DAHNT SAY NOY, STOP UT!", which doesn't really help my cause.

My partner, also Australian, has requested "sewing needles" and been given instant noodles, asked for "two bowls" and received two glasses of Coke, and a simple request for "chicken on rice" - while pointing to the large "chicken on rice" sign on the restaurant's wall took a good five minutes to resolve.

All of this has led me to finally understand why so many Aussies mysteriously pick up an American twang after living in the States for a while. It's not because they're wankers who want to show off where they've been living. Well, maybe in part. But, mainly, it's because they want to order a Diet Coke and actually receive it, instead of a blank look (and a possible visit from the authorities).

It's because they don't want to mend a patch on their pants with instant noodles.

And it's because, when it comes down to it, anything is better than being mistaken for a Pom.

This article was first published in the Adelaide Sunday Mail on Sunday, October 9, 2011.


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