FROM THE NEWS-LEDGER — SEP 25, 2013 —
As much as I love the written word, it’s the spoken word that has always fascinated me. I think it began with a college fraternity brother of mine who had been raised in the American South and had the slowest of slow drawls that I had ever heard. When I asked him why he spoke that way he smiled and said, “Well, if you’ve ever been down South in the summer time during all that heat and humidity, you would know how much effort it takes to just put a simple sentence together, so most of us Southerners learned early on that it’s a whole lot easier to just take our time and speak very, very slowly.”
I have often wondered if we really know what we sound like to those around us? I once heard my voice on a telephone answering machine and couldn’t believe it was me. Interestingly enough, a recent study found that most of us actually prefer the sound of our own voice to the voices of others. But my favorite accent has always belonged to the Australians. I almost immediately fell in love with the way Aussies speak way back in 1969 when the U.S. Army let me take a whole week off from the Vietnam War and go to Sydney, Australia for my R&R. And what a lovely big modern city it was, right on the sea with pretty brick homes everywhere and very friendly people speaking English in what seemed to me the most wonderful way possible.
“I’m not exactly sure why it is,” said an Australian friend of mine, “but I think it’s true that most Americans generally quite like an Australian accent. But when I lived in Virginia for a few years I remember opening my mouth to speak and it was like biting into cake hot out of the oven and it falling into a thousand crumbs. It seemed messy and inelegant compared to the way you Americans speak English. To my ear, my voice sounded jarring, like shattering glass among the pebbly-smooth American accents. And those poor nice Virginians sure spent a lot of time saying `Pardon?’ when I spoke to them.”
As our conversation continued about some of the different ways Americans and Australians go about speaking English, I also learned that Aussies like to have fun with their language.
“We like to fiddle with our words,” explained my friend from Down Under. “You know, kind of Australianize them and make them our own, although sometimes I think we just like to juvenilize them and make them sound cute. And so we have mozzies instead of mosquitoes, and cozzies instead of swimming costumes, and brekky instead of breakfast, and bickies instead of cookies, just to name a few. And our language is also full of understatements and overstatements, twists and subtleties. For instance, if your best mate called you a `total bastard’, it’s actually a compliment, but if he called you `a bit of a bastard’, you should begin to run.”
“Really?” I asked, smiling.
“Plus the Australian sense of humor is also embedded in the colorful way we use our language,” continued my friend, “going all the way back to our convict heritage. And we have also been blessed with lots of beautiful Aboriginal words, although you have to live in Australia forever to properly pronounce some of our Aboriginal places like Woolgoolga, Woolloomooloo, Yackandandah, Upotipotpon, Manangaroo, Moolooloo, Wollongong, Koolyanobbing, and my personal favorite, Mamungkukumpurangkuntjunya, which, by the way, means `where the devil urinates’. And only in Australia would you find places with names like Boyland, Come By Chance, Banana and Orange, Doo Town, Foul Bay, Humpty Doo, Tom Ugly, Useless Loop, Rooty Hill, Nowhere Else, and Mt. Buggery.”
“What I remember best about Australia,” I said, “is that it only took about a 30-minute drive out of Sydney to be in a whole different place, with vast vistas and some of the most other-worldly scenery I had ever seen.”
“One of my favorite places in Australia – both enjoyable to the tongue and the eye – is Cootabloodymundra, which I think you would call a `one-horse town’. And we have lots of Woop Woop towns, which is actually pronounced different than it sounds, something like a bird call. All Woop Woop places are wonderfully remote and isolated and backwards, like I guess being `out in the sticks’ is in America. Actually, in Australia we can drive for many hours and hundreds of miles in a vast, paprika red and juiceless blood orange dustbowl under a massive blue dome of sky, and it all qualifies as Woop Woop. Anyway, I have always loved the way us Aussies have gone out of our way to have fun with our language and it continues to this day. I mean, where else in the world can you be happily driving along and come upon Curly Dick Road?”
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