05 January 2008

A sultana and some fairy floss

It's been a while since I've perseverated on linguistic issues in this blog (no, the last post doesn't count as perseveration. It's a fine line...)

That's mainly because, since we left Tibet, we've been firmly ensconced in English-language sorts of tourism, and way too much has been written about the semantics of the Indian head-bob or the syntactical rules that govern Singlish (, lah). Having figured out the former, to a greater or lesser degree, and having enjoyed the realization that the latter is absolutely essential for communication in Singapore (even for an ang mo like me), we figured we'd land in Australia and be set. Comfortable.

After all, World English may be a fascinating topic in some circles, but this is Australia. They speak English, right? Just like the rest of us, right? There's no Hindi or Chinese or Malay or Tamil to pollute these pristine linguistic waters.


It's harder to get around in this country's language than either of the other two. Sure, the alphabet isn't hung, dangling off a diaphanous horizontal line. But that's about all the help we got. And we were shocked at how ununderstandable Australian English was. It wasn't that we hadn't been exposed to English from Down Under. But, that English had, evidently, been tempered in those who spoke it by the fact that they lived Up Over.

Down Under, though, things are different. Countless times, we've overheard a conversation in a bus or elevator or Opera House, and automatically assumed those involved were speaking some Germanic language. Until they weren't, until our minds parsed, and the realization dawned that we could actually understand them.

The reverse has been true. Just yesterday, we were behind a Russian couple. I could have sworn they were speaking Australian English. Until they weren't.

See, it's not just the pronunciation that's different. Yes, um becomes aam and rhymes with ham. Yes, the r is absent unless it's followed by a vowel, and then it's there even when it's not supposed to be (droring?). But it's also an entirely different lexical world you're up against.

A schooner, for example. Yes, it's a fore- and aft-rigged sailing vessel. Except when it means a tall glass of beer.

A sultana doesn't wed the ruler of a small desert state. Here, she's a raisin. And raisin is simply not understood.

A hotel—well, yes, you can book beds in it. Except when it's not a hotel and transforms, instead, into a multi-storied beer garden with pool tables and meeting rooms.

And fairy floss, unlike pork floss, is not the end-result of a rendering plant (though that would explain where all the fairies went). No. It's justs a slightly more embarrassing way to order cotton candy.

Finally, there's the word squizzy. When we first heard it used in the sentence, "We can go have a squizzy," we weren't sure whether to shrink in disgust, to report the man saying it for a medical check-up, or to wonder what sorts of things he did when he was home alone.

A squizzy, we were happy to find out, is not communicable. It's simply "a look-see." I guess this is what happens when you incarcerate a certain subset of your society on an island as far away from anywhere as you can find, and then leave them be.

In the meantime, we've started catching up on all our pictures. Tibet is uploaded (though not labelled too completely yet). Have a squizzy.
Meanwhile, I'm going to go grab myself a schooner from the local hotel.

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