Southerly by David Haywood


Overheard on a Bus

I adore a good misunderstanding. Happily, a feature of New Zealand dialect known as the NEAR-SQUARE diphthong merger provides endless scope for confusion and entertainment.

This diphthong merger affects only some New Zealanders, and means that they pronounce the words 'near' and 'square' (and other words in these lexical sets) as if they rhymed. Older New Zealanders will be astounded to hear that anyone -- however young and shiftless -- could rhyme two such dissimilar words. But if you don't believe that it can be done, then listen to this speaker pronouncing the words 'fear', 'fair', and 'fare'.

On the other hand, younger New Zealanders will be utterly gobsmacked if you suggest that the words 'near' and 'square' don't rhyme. An assertion which, in turn, may make people of a certain disposition demand the reinstatement of compulsory military training and/or the death penalty.

For myself, I do differentiate between 'near' and 'square' -- although I can usually guess what shabbily-dressed young people are trying to say. I've even become acclimatized to television advertisements for a company called "Ear New Zealand" (apparently they also have a fleet of planes).

But occasionally, I get caught out. I recently met a woman in her late thirties, who introduced herself as "Clear". In a nervous attempt at chit-chat, I commented on the unusualness of her name, and jocularly inquired if her parents were hippies or scientologists.

Her: What's so funny about the name 'Clear'.

Me: [beginning to wish I'd never mentioned the subject] There's nothing funny about it -- it's just such an unusual name.

Her: It's not unusual -- there must be thousands of women in New Zealand called 'Clear'.

Me: [absolutely astonished] Really? I've never met anyone else called 'Clear' in my entire life. Is it spelt with a 'C' or a 'K".

Her: C... L... A... I... R... E.

My own humiliations are, however, utterly dwarfed by a superb misunderstanding that I overheard on the bus the other day.

A young mother and son had climbed aboard at a childcare centre called Caring and Sharing. They took a seat opposite to an elderly lady and her groceries.

Elderly lady [to little boy]: Where have you been today?

Young mother: He's been at Caring and Sharing.

Elderly lady: Shearing? He's a bit young for that, isn't he?

Young mother: No, Caring and Sharing believes in learning to share as early as possible

Elderly lady: Really? I thought it would be all computers and that, nowadays.

Young mother: Oh no, learning to share is much more important than computers.

Elderly lady: Well, I never! The farmers will be pleased, I suppose.

Young mother: Oh, here's our stop [grabs child and disembarks].

This is the kind of solid-gold misunderstanding that leaves me almost speechless with delight. And, best of all, the confusion was unresolved. It gives me scope to have happy visions of the elderly lady telling her friends about the new educational methods: "Gosh, you've no idea what they've got the little ones doing at kindy these days..."

... or perhaps arguing with her grown-up children:

Grown-up son or daughter: Mum, you must have got it wrong. They wouldn't be teaching pre-schoolers how to shear.

Elderly Lady: [doggedly sticking to her guns] No, I asked several times. She said they're all learning to shear at kindy nowadays. Apparently it's much more useful than computers.

There's even the joyous possibility that she may go to her grave believing that shearing is being taught at kindergartens. And perhaps it will even give consolation in her final moments -- knowing that the art of shearing has been passed to a new generation.

It makes me proud to be a New Zealander.

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