My English Variant (by Sumanthra Govender)

I think I’ve commented in past posts that I grew up with my English being questioned. It’s not that I couldn’t speak or write in the language; English is my first language and mother tongue. It’s that the variant of the language I spoke was not the variant of the majority around me. I spoke and in many ways still speak a mixed English with influences from South Africa, Ireland, Canada (West and East, English Speaking and French Speaking), and the US.

I don’t sound like my parents, who are also native speakers of English, but I use words and phrasing like they do. It’s the English I was brought up with. For example, I say the boot of a car and not the trunk, the bonnet of a car and not the hood. I spell with a “u” – colour, behaviour, and humour, and I spell with an “s” – organisation, realise. The phone is engaged and not busy, traffic was always chockablock. For me, French fries are chips and chips are crisps. I say grand when things are good, I use right for affirmations, I used to say ta for thank you, but I’ve pretty much converted to thank you. A sweater is a jumper, bacon slices are rashers, and cigarettes are fags (this one got me into too much hot water over here… unintentionally, so cigarettes it is).

This variability in my English terminology has sparked curiosity in many people with whom I have spoken. For some, my Canadian identity is masked by the words I use. However, this is the only way I know to speak my Canadian identity. For many years, close friends of mine didn’t even let me know that they had no idea what I was talking about simply because they couldn’t understand my English. I’m still surprised why it took so long for many of them to ask me what I meant. I say “yer man” to refer to a person, but unless I say it to someone who’s Irish or who knows what I mean, I’m always asked “what man are you talking about?”

I remember once I asked someone in the States where the washroom was, and I was directed to the laundry facilities rather than to the toilets or restroom or bathroom… whichever word you choose to use. Over time, I’ve learnt to speak in certain ways depending on where I am. I’m not always 100% at it, so I am keenly aware that how I see and hear myself and how I voice my thoughts is a hodgepodge of English terms and those who are really close to me now know how to understand what it is I’m saying… at times.

The regions I have lived in and the countries and cultures that form my background make my English linguistically diverse. This complicated network of English vocabulary is something that I have passed on to my daughter. The educators at my daughter’s daycare know that she’s juggling 3 languages, English, French and German. When they can’t understand the word she’s saying, they simply assume that it’s a German word when in fact it could be an English variant. The other day I picked up my daughter from daycare with her umbrella in hand. She wanted to show it to her educator.

Daughter: “Melanie, look at my brolly!”

Teacher Melanie: “No, that’s an umbrella.”

Daughter: “Yah.. a brolly.”

Teacher Melanie: “No, umbrella…. um – brell – a”

Me: “Actually she’s correct. “brolly” is a short word for umbrella. Remember, her terms are different at times.”

Teacher Melanie: “That’s right, her other language influence is German”.

Me: “No, brolly is an English word. British English Slang”

Teacher Melanie: “I didn’t know that? Wait, where’s the British English coming from? ”

My daughter had the same expression on her face that I had growing up when people wouldn’t understand my English even though we were speaking the “same” language. My BILD colleague Kathleen (Apple) Green also pointed out that my daughter and I sound “North American, which might affect things a bit. If, for example, a person said ‘brolly’ with a British accent, maybe a Canadian Anglo would say ‘oh, does that mean umbrella in England?’ but your accent doesn’t give away your connection to other Englishes, so people don’t have that assumption that it must be a regular term from somewhere else.”

Eventually, I will make my daughter aware that there are English speakers out there who won’t understand her not because she’s speaking in tongues, but simply because she has a my little gift of a “mishmashed” English. So, my Dear Little One, “Pleasure, or Not at all, or You’re welcome!”. Love Mama.

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