English, I have learned, isn’t just one language. Depending on where you live in the English-speaking world, words can develop new meanings or spiral into new directions.
I have found, to my great distress, that I am beginning to forget what I, as an English-speaking Canadian, should be saying or how I should pronounce it. When I left Canada at 23, having spent a wonderful four years in Ottawa and, before that, having grown up among the mountains in northern British Columbia, I felt strongly rooted to our great nation. I’m now married to a Brit, and as the years go by, I have begun to notice those roots becoming increasingly fragile. At 30, I’m heartbroken that I have left Canada, and that Canada is starting to leave me.
Before moving to Wales as an exchange student, I took a seminar on how to adapt to life in a foreign country. I was cautioned by the instructor at Carleton University that the people most likely to feel culture shock were actually the people who went to Britain, not those who moved to the different cultures of say Chile or Italy. This was because the Britain-bound people didn’t prepare themselves for the change. They assumed living among English-speaking people in what is effectively the birthplace of English Canada’s culture would be just like home. In fact, it very much isn’t.
It’s not just language that separates the two cultures, but it is a key feature that defines us. Brits call their sidewalks “pavements,” their car trunks “boots,” their candies “sweets,” and they don’t know what a tuque is. To blend in and relate to those around me, I have had to learn to strip my vocabulary of any foreign-sounding words.
One of my first jobs here was editing copy at a regional newspaper. I remember reading through a reporter’s copy describing a good gardener as having “green fingers.” I changed the words and passed the story along because, as any right-thinking person knows, a good gardener has a green thumb. The puzzled reporter later approached my desk. He ventured timidly, “It appears that someone has changed my copy to say the gardener has green thumbs.” He looked at me, clearly aghast that anyone could make such a mistake. “Er,” I replied, “I think I can explain.”
In reality, no one can really explain how the English language can be used in such different ways in different parts of the world in this age of converging media and mass communication.
What I do know is I have immersed myself in the language of Britain and it is beginning to be all that I know. Though at first using a “loo” seemed strange, and asking for directions to a “toilet” seemed a tad too direct, I now find it quaint when I hear tourists ask directions to the “washroom.”
It’s not surprising that I am adapting my language to my surroundings. When in Rome, right? But there are increasingly moments when, along with my Canadian language, I feel my Canadian identity is slowly slipping away.
I’ve referred to hockey as “ice hockey” – even to Canadian friends – a sure sign that my cultural boundaries have shifted. In Britain, field hockey is the more popular sport and retains the generic “hockey” title.
Describing places such as Vietnam and Thailand as the “Far East” is also common practice here, and although it jars, I’ve accepted that it’s not meant to be derogatory, nor is it consciously imperialist.
I’ve also completely forgotten how I’m supposed to pronounce “derby,” “leisure,” “process,” “depot” or “Caribbean.” My accent has become slightly anglicized so people are never confident about where I’m from. I sometimes get mistaken for American or Irish, although quite a few people ask if I’m Canadian.
I’ve stopped trying to write the words “nix” and “boondoggle” in a sentence – they don’t translate here. A phrase everyone from my home province would recognize – grow op – means nothing to the “cannabis farmers” in Britain. There are countless other words in common usage in Canada that now sound unfamiliar, while I will happily trot out words such as “penultimate” and “fortnight.”
One day soon, I’d like to move back to Canada. But it has been so long since I last lived there that I worry how I’ll cope. It breaks my heart that I could arrive in the country of my birth armed with the language of a foreign land. My vocabulary and accent have made me an outsider here, and I don’t want to be an outsider in Canada too. Equally sad, though, is the thought of never returning.
I cling to the hope that maybe, just maybe, Canada hasn’t been leaving me. Somewhere within me the words, expressions and pronunciations that I took for granted for so many years are buried away, ready to resurface when needed.