Monday, November 8, 2010


Just landed in Australia, and once again I am taken by surprise at a linguistic problem of mine: I have a hard time with non-American English accents. As a linguist, I'm kind of embarrassed by this problem,  but here goes. Here's what happened as soon as we landed:

Bleary from a 14-hour flight, we deplaned and were directed through the Sydney airport toward customs. A chipper young Aussie guy looked at me and said, gesturing with his arm, "Shop left!" I was puzzled and thought, "Huh? He's trying to get me to go shopping already?" "Shop left!" he repeated. I looked at my husband for help (as I always do when I can't understand non-American English). "SHARP left," my husband Jim said patiently.

This problem persists, and I believe it is getting worse. I'm trying to figure out what's going on, and have one (perhaps crackpot) theory I'm trying out: during our recent 3-year stay in China, I listened very acutely for every tiny phonetic distinction I could pick up on in order to help me hear and speak Mandarin better: tones, the many different sounds we don't have in English (especially in the family of  S, SH, CH, Z, X, Q, etc), the absence of many familiar sounds (like clusters of consonants, e.g. STR, PL, -SKT).

Maybe I am now in the habit of somehow listening too hard, too acutely when something out of the ordinary North American English comes along. I don't know.  I'll keep monitoring this!

One more very charming Aussie-ism: during our first hour here, at least two different people greeted us with the phrase, "Are we having fun yet?" Actually, yes we are.



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