The Displaced Nation

A home for international creatives

NEW VS OLDE: The Canadian “R”

Libby Collage New&OldFor just over two years, readers of the Displaced Nation have been following a novel-in-progress by Kate Allison called Libby’s Life. It’s the running diary of Libby Patrick, an Englishwoman who has trailed her spouse to a town just outside Boston. Libby’s Life is rich in Kate’s observations about life in New England vs. England. In the weeks when she doesn’t publish an episode, we plan to feature posts by writers who are sensitive to the often-subtle differences between new and old worlds.

This week: Carolyn Steele, a Brit now living in Canada, whose book, Trucking In English, we reviewed last month.

It’s a useful thing, the Canadian R. There are times that I wish my English way of speaking—my inherent BBC accent—could learn to incorporate it. The technique would have helped a lot with a potentially disastrous spot of linguistic difficulty. The discovery that I am still prone to linguistic difficulty is surprising in itself. I have been through the initial culture shock associated with realizing that no-one in Canada knows that Brits speak a different language. I have come to terms with the fact that old episodes of Are You Being Served on TVO don’t help me when I want to buy petrol, crisps or knickers.

Carolyn Steele, TruckingI came through all that and emerged on the other side the sort of wise and whimsical Brit who uses the language barrier for fun but can turn it off at will when there is serious work to be done. I went native vocabulary-wise and thought I knew it all. Well guess what? Vocabulary isn’t always enough. An inability to produce the Canadian R can get you into just as much trouble as a car with a bonnet.

It all began with an email from a friend; another ex-pat from London, transplanted to Ontario. Another mascot with a quaint accent who entertains all and sundry on a regular basis with jolly misunderstandings of a transatlantic nature. After a few years of gags about putting trunks in the boots and boots in the trunks of our cars, asking for tomatoes that don’t rhyme with potatoes just to confuse people, and clinging doggedly to trousers and torches and lorries, we both considered ourselves adept at mangling the language for pleasure; the deliberate, linguistically delicious cabaret.

Light dawns…or should that be “dorns”?

So, what strange alignment of the planets, which unheard of synchronicity of biorhythms, caused us both to discover in the same week that Canadians pronounce ‘pawn’ and ‘porn’ somewhat differently? Of course, I am very grateful to have received the email. Without it (typed amid tears of glee I understand, after what sounds like a classic cabaret day) I would not have known. And that is the big difference between his story and mine, his listeners put him right. There and then. Embarrassment, laughter, beer, funny anecdote.

Mine were polite. Without the anecdotal email I still might not have known quite how I had managed to horrify a couple of guests at my B&B. I would only have known that they appeared to think me a little strange. If my ex-pat pal had not been among work colleagues who consider it their inalienable right to poke fun, and if he had refrained from kindly sharing the joke with me, I would still be none the wiser.

If you’re not using the Canadian R — be specific.

It might have helped if I had told them I was looking for a TV to upgrade one of our bedrooms but I didn’t. They told me all about their day and I told them all about mine. About finding this great little pawn shop where the people were so friendly and helpful. My guests looked a little nonplussed but smiled encouragingly. They appeared to want me to continue with an explanation, so I did. “They have this great scratch and dent section for electrical goods,” I wittered. “All new stuff, nothing used…and I have a 30 day guarantee too.”

If you are reading this, dear guests, I am truly sorry if you thought I was running a brothel out of the room next to yours. I wasn’t you see; I was a landed immigrant who would have been deported for breaking the law. It was a beautiful little TV and I was delighted with it, I am quite normal really.

I have been practicing my diction ever since. I thought I could be relatively Canadian when I chose, after all I could do a really authentic howarya on the telephone sometimes after a beer or two, so this bothered me. I tried really hard to make ‘pawn’ and ‘porn’ sound different just in case I ever needed to use either word again. Different people thought I was mad but I got there in the end. I run little podcasts on my blog these days and when I listen to them back while editing I can hear the BBC accent plus randomly sprinkled Canadian Rs.

Should I ever frequent a pawn shop again it’ll be ok.

* * *

Readers: what linguistic trouble have you unwittingly landed yourself in?  Please leave your thoughts in the comments!

A Londoner born and bred, Carolyn Steele is now a Canadian citizen and lives in Kitchener, Ontario, where she ran a Bed & Breakfast for five years before trying her hand at negotiating 18-wheelers. Depending on who is asking,  she “maintains that she is either multi-faceted or easily bored”. Confirming this, her résumé states that, in addition to being a lady trucker, she has also been a psychologist and a London Ambulance Service paramedic, while her hobbies include tatting, a form of lace-making. 

Check out her website, Trucking in English, at, and/or follow her on Twitter:  @Trucking_Lady

STAY TUNED for next week’s fabulous posts!

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Related posts:

Images: Picture of Carolyn from herself.

Portrait of woman from MorgueFile; Lighthouse (R) from MorgueFile; Lighthouse (L) from MorgueFile

2 responses to “NEW VS OLDE: The Canadian “R”

  1. Yvonne Hertzberger April 26, 2013 at 9:52 am

    Hilarious, Carolyn. Language is such a rich source of both humour and (mis)understanding.

  2. Pingback: Author Spotlight no.269 – Carolyn Steele | Morgen Bailey's Writing Blog

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