"....... for he knows how we are formed, he remembers that we are dust" Psalm 103:14

Phonological* idiosyncrasies

Photo by Joshua Hoehne on Unsplash

*phonology = the study of the distribution and patterning of speech sounds in a language and of the tacit rules governing pronunciation.

A number of years ago, my family spent a few weeks in the United States as part of a 7-week "round the world" taste-of-overseas-travel-for-our-boys holiday. It was a bit of an adventure for all of us, to be honest, and the longest holiday we'd ever taken, not to mention being overseas the whole time. Exciting would be an understatement.

We travelled to, and within, two English-speaking countries, and four foreign-language-speaking countries, and given that at the time we had only a smattering of French, German and Italian words between us, we actually did okay overall.

The odd minor hiccup, or three
The trip wasn't without minor mishaps and challenges along the way, but none of these were particularly stressful nor did they really threaten to hijack our holiday enjoyment (well, one or two of them may have ever-so-slightly............).

It was the end of 2005, only 4 years after 9/11, so we did encounter some increased paranoia and over-the-top security at airports in the USA (and this may well still be the case even now). Then there were little annoyances like missing the hotel bus when we arrived in Los Angeles at close to midnight, and having to wait a long time for the next one with two tired and grumpy teenagers (and their equally tired and grumpy parents).

Or getting a bit lost in Rome while looking for "all the fountains"..........

And the language barrier
Then there were the slightly bigger challenges, like losing our 14 year old somewhere, somehow, in the crowded Sistine Chapel. And I do mean losing. So lost, in fact, that his mother was beside herself thinking she would NEVER see him again, because how on earth were we going to overcome the language barrier to even begin explaining this dreadful situation?? Google Translate was years away yet.

Thankfully he was sensible enough to realise he was lost, find a chair and sit, and wait, while we frantically gesticulated (I cried) and desperately tried to describe this precious lost boy of ours to the security guards patrolling the Vatican Museum, none of whom spoke much English (but they could certainly read body language and distraught noises extremely well). Half an anxiety-ridden hour later they found him and delivered him safely to us in the foyer.............

Some of our language challenges were mildly amusing, but others bordered on the ridiculous, and had more to do with the issue of pronunciation and accent than the issue of another language entirely. Accents. Ours and theirs. In English-speaking countries!

Now as a born and bred Aussie, I'd always thought that we just simply didn't even HAVE an accent. The way we pronounce words was just, well, NORMAL, and completely accent-free. Of course.

Ummm, apparently not.

Can we please just get on the train?
This first came to light while in California, when I tried to use an automated phone booking system to secure tickets for the train to Hollywood. We were off to Universal Studios!! Asked where we would be departing from, I enunciated clearly to "Julie" the automated teller, that we would be leaving from Anaheim (with my usual Aussie twang, that I actually don't have, thank you very much). But poor "Julie" simply wasn't able to compute. How strange! She asked (and I tried) again. And again. And again.

I hung up. I was laughing so much. In fact, I had to hang up several times because I just could NOT activate the booking system with my peculiarly Aussie version of the crucial word. By the fourth or fifth hangup, I had to leave the hotel room, we were all laughing so hard.

"Don't follow me!!" I said fiercely to my family as I laughed until I nearly wet myself. I stood in the stairwell to compose myself, then tried again - speaking much more carefully and slowly to "Julie" - and this time with my best put-on Californian accent.

Nope. Try again.

Ta da!!!!

It worked! Tickets booked.

Ummm, pardon me??
Another morning in California we took the boys to IHOP for breakfast - The International House of Pancakes. Yes, it was their choice in case you were wondering! Settling in to our booth and perusing the menu, we were suddenly on the receiving end of a stream of rapid-fire sounds from the mouth of the waitress who had just appeared by our table. Unfortunately what she said made NO sense whatsoever. We looked blankly and somewhat awkwardly at each other, and then politely asked her to repeat herself.

"You want coffee, tea or miniminiminoju?" (or something like that).

Okay then. We were getting closer. Coffee, tea or something-completely-unintelligible-that-sounded-nothing-like-any-breakfast-item-WE-knew-of. She might as well have been speaking another language entirely.

Feeling a little embarrassed now, we asked for yet another repeat. Also starting to wonder if there was something a little bit wrong with us. She slowed down. She spoke carefully. She enunciated each word so that we could, finally, work it out.

Would we like "coffee, tea or Minute Maid orange juice"??

Well, clearly it was the "Minute Maid" that threw us, but never in a million years would we have worked that one out without a lot of help. Much laughter ensued, and thankfully she was not at all offended (but probably thought we were a bunch of ignorant hicks).

But we speak the same language...........
Apparently! The speechie in me marvelled at just how phonologically different Australian and American English actually are. Not to mention Australian and Irish.......... I dated an Irish guy by the name of Michael when I was at university. Or at least I called him Michael. His parents and siblings called him "Maykle" - I loved the way it rolled off their tongues!

Even within Australia there are noticeable differences. Many of my relatives are from New South Wales, where they say "pewel" when they should actually be saying "pool". Of course. Not only that, but they put on their "cossies" and not their "bathers". As a child I found this intriguing.

Maybe I do have an accent
I've been told before that I have a "Tasmanian" accent (what even is that???). I guess it means that there are some words I pronounce ever-so-slightly differently to the way others are used to hearing them. It's not something I'm aware of and even though I studied phonology and linguistics at university, I doubt I could isolate the subtle differences even if I wanted to. At the same time, I've also been asked if I'm from the UK, so go figure.

I also find it fascinating that some languages have sounds most of us have never encountered before, and couldn't produce even if we tried. Zulu anyone?? But mainly I love that spoken (and written) language is such a beautiful gift, and enables connections with others in amazing ways. Phonological idiosyncrasies exist, even within a homogeneous population like Australia, let alone from one English-speaking country to another, but they are part of what makes each person individual and unique.

Have you encountered phonological differences in an amusing or challenging way? Feel free to share your anecdote in the comments below.


  1. I always notice it when New Zealanders speak and mix their "i" and "e" sounds - and the South African/Zimbawe-an tone and inflection always grates to my ear for some strange reason. I also notice it when bloggers do a FB Live video and they often sound completely different to how I'd visualized (audiolized?) them in my head.

    1. I know what you mean Leanne! My son's girlfriend is from NZ, and I'm learning to really love her particular phonological idiosyncrasies, helped I'm sure by what a sweetheart she is. The Afrikaans influence is certainly very strong in some SA speakers. It's really amazing, isn't it, how English speakers from different countries have been influenced by so many variables, to the point that sometimes it takes a while before we realise we're hearing English spoken!! Some of the strongest accents that confound me are actually from areas of the UK!!


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