When Harry met Jimmy

Accents are the first obstacle that come to my mind when I think of communication problems. Every region, every special geographical area has its own accent. I, myself, am from an area which is famous for having a very strong – and somehow “ugly” – accent that only we can understand. People tend to make fun of it, because the Northern-France accent is, I must admit, not the most elegant one. Moreover, it happens that some regions also have their own little dialects and have their own words, but there are usually very few of them and they don’t constitute a barrier at all. Thus, I have thought for a long time that pronunciation was the only note-worthy thing that can prevent you from understanding one another.

Then, I experienced people that are “supposed” to speak the same language but don’t. I am majoring in English language and civilization in France, and before going to America, I honestly thought that American English and British English were only different in their accent and the way that they spell words (color vs. colour; theatre vs. theater). I never imagined, for example, that my British suitemate could have difficulty in communicating with her American neighbor. Have you ever attend a “fight” between two girls that spoke a different English about how “ridiculous it is to call a hoodie a jumper, because “for god’s sake” you “just don’t jump inside it!”, but at the same time how absurd it is to call trousers “pants” because “pants” actually designate “underwear” ? If you get bored one night, I highly recommend you to attend this kind of scene; living with exchange students can’t be more entertaining. At least entertaining when you look from an outsider perspective. However, when you are involve in one of this language battle, it immediately ceases to be funny.

I went to Montreal two weeks ago with some students for a cultural trip. I’ve always heard how funny it was to listen to a French Canadian because they have a very awkward accent that people like to imitate when having a meal washed down with wine. I can’t hide that I had numerous laughing fits over there when I would just overhear a conversation in the streets, passing by these “northern-cousins” as we call them back home. Yet, little by little, it just turns into a sour laughter when one of them point out that YOU have a funny accent. (Excuse me? Did you even hear yourself talking?).

Follow then a rather aggressive conversation about how the other is actually butchering your language, which launches a debate about how ridiculous their vocabulary are and how they absolutely make no sense!

From a metropolitan’s point of view, French Canadian have a huge collection of absurd words that come from NOWHERE! I am not even going to attempt to give you an example because, first I still don’t know what it means, and then, there is no way I can translate it so that you can understand. But I guess the worst would be when I realized that they actually take French words and give them a different meaning of the one we (in France) are used to, which can potentially be useful to know… You should have in mind, for instance, that when asking how are their children (in French: les gosses), a French Canadian would think that you are asking about their family jewels… Small detail, indeed. As a comparison, imagine that you meet a British guy who asks you the permission to stroke your dog, or to borrow your rubber. (to stroke (UK)= to pet (US); a rubber (UK) = an eraser (US) )

These kind of changes within languages are more obvious for us as we live in the present and we experience different dialects. However, the main changes are measured across the ages. Languages are always in a state of flux. If people from different places have difficulty in understanding each other, it’s a safe bet that people from the same area but born in a different time would not even be able to have a conversation.


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