Mon, 08 Aug 2005

So Peter Jennings, the Canadian-born anchor of the ABC evening news, has died. In a story in today’s New York Times there is a paragraph comparing him to his chief competitors, Tom Brokaw at NBC and the deranged Dan Rather at CBS. Unlike the “plain-spoken” Brokaw and the “folksy” Rather, Jennings was “worldly”; he “neither spoke like many of his viewers…nor looked like them, with a matinee-idol face and crisply tailored wardrobe.” As evidence, the Times presents the following: “about came out of his mouth as A-BOOT, a remnant of his Canadian roots.”

What the hell? I rarely watched the big network newscasts, so I can’t say with certainty that Peter Jennings did not say “aboot”. But I bet he didn’t. Because in my entire life I have never heard a Canadian (or anyone else) say “aboot”. Yet the myth of “aboot” is so persistent that many Americans are apparently willing to believe it despite the evidence of their own ears. Even hearing Peter Jennings say “owt” will not disabuse them of their certainty: “Did he just say ‘owt’? Nah…it’s impossible. He’s Canadian. He must’ve said ‘oot’.”

Or is it possible that the collective delusion is ours? Is it possible we’re actually saying “aboot” and we don’t even know it? It’s like that old brain-twister that every pothead and imaginative seventh-grader has grappled with: “How do I know that my yellow is the same colour as your yellow? Maybe my yellow is, like, your blue.” Spooky.

It’s not that I have anything against the idea of “aboot”. I kind of wish we did have a distinctive accent, like the Australians or the Scots or the South Africans. If I thought anybody else would play along, I’d even propose a national campaign to encourage Canadians to adopt the “aboot” pronunciation, just for the heck of it. It would be way more fun than Rick Mercer’s turn-off-the-lights-when-you-leave-the-room crusade. And it would do more to encourage national unity than any phoney Flag Day, or hopeless Olympic bid, or trying to remember the name of the new Governor General. But I don’t think anyone would actually do it. Because “aboot” just sounds funny. Plus, it’s hard work. You have to push your lips into an awkward kissy-face position, and it’s difficult to get them back into shape for the mushy middle-of-the-mouth vowels that make up the rest of our language. We North Americans have lazy mouths, we don’t like to move them more than is necessary. I predict that in twenty or thirty years, even words with “oo” and “ee” in them will be pronounced “uh”. The schwa will rule. Ultimately our communication will degenerate into a long sustained mumble, as happened to Marlon Brando and Bob Dylan. All more sophisticated communication will take the form of Flash animations on our cranial LCD displays.

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