K. and I were just listening to A Good Day for Airplay, a podcast from Montreal. For some time, assuming the presenter was from somewhere on the US east coast, I decided his accent was probably that of a native-born Israeli. But realising a few months back that it was actually Québecois made sudden sense of his speech patterns.
I pointed this out to K, and in response she mentioned that a French family she knew would always dissolve into gales of laughter whenever Céline Dion started speaking. Knowing the French in both the general and the specific, I think that could have been because of Dion’s accent. On the other hand, it might instead have been because, despite actually being Céline Dion, she still hadn’t quite perfected an unconscionable snobbery about anything not approved by the Académie, and that was a terrible faux pas in the eyes of that family.
Bernard Shaw suggested that “England and America are two countries divided by a common language”—these days he should say Britain and America, unless he was writing in American rather than British—but I think that approaches the mutual ineffability from the wrong direction. Instead, we should think of the shared vocabulary and syntax as nothing more than an historical accident, like the fact that a Briton and a Frisian can communicate remarkably effectively about livestock, albeit in Geordie accents.
Beginning by accepting that we can only really guarantee our speech will have one thing in common with that of Americans—etymology—only actually helps you so far. It’s still the case that otherwise transatlantic media and cultural experiences can still provoke nauseating vertigo, as you suddenly find yourself peering into a yawning gulf of incomprehension. But the acceptance if nothing else serves as a sickbag for that nausea, or maybe gives you a reason to treat it all as one big rollercoaster ride. I still feel funny about things like trick-or-treating. But then I’m not keen on rollercoasters either.