Updated: Oct 7
Before I became a transplant to Britain, some of my earliest exposure to the language and culture was not welcome in my life. I perceived it as a horrible sabotage of my Sunday morning cartoons. Coronation Street, thy name be cursed.
However, I've a lot to thank of the program these days. It made some of my transition a little easier. You may also find your vacation to England seems a little more familiar having watched the soap yourself!
As a child of the 80s
I was a child in the 80s and, like most children of the era, enjoyed weekend cartoons as what seemed like a miracle to me at the time. No on-demand or painstaking decision making to waste away the day, either there were cartoons on or there weren't.
I might argue that it is more efficient, maybe even more productive to just get on with watching television rather than surfing channels or scrolling Netflix for 30 minutes prior to watching a 22-minute show.
Related | Check out our England travel guide
As the late 80s rolled out and the early 90s rolled in, some changes arrived in my weekend cartoon habits. The arrival of some female siblings.
There were maybe 2-3 channels we could receive which showed different children's programs. As easily distracted children, we'd swap back and forth from Thundercats if I could gain control, My Little Pony if I couldn't, maybe Care Bears or My Pet Monster if there was a truce. They outnumbered me almost from the start, while being bigger and older just put me in the bad books if I acted out. I loved the Transformers, but caught a good spanking once when I was caught watching it, the irony of the show having too many weapons and being too violent for me!
Death by Coronation Street
In reality, if there were cartoons on, my younger sisters and I had one real choice: Watch them or don't watch them.
We watched them with relish.
But on Sundays of the era in much of Canada, the weekly catch up of long running British soap, Coronation Street would run about midday.
Basically the end to the perfect morning, my sisters and I had sugary cereal and played with our toys or fantasized over the ones highlighted during commercial breaks (who among you 80s children now can't still sing the Toys R Us Kid jingle?), rotting our brains on episode after episode of Muppet Babies.
But as children you don't care about the perfect morning or reflect on how much you've been enjoying yourself, you just want the cartoons to go on forever! Hearing the whiny drone of that muted trumpet and watching that bloody striped cat appear over the reddish brick and rooftops of some boring town in a country on the other side of the planet seemed like the end of all happiness.
If we were at my grandparents' home, visiting for weeks on end during the summer and winter breaks sometimes, we couldn't even escape that boredom. They loved it far more than my mother did! Where the theme song normally signaled the day's death of my cartooning, at Grandma and Grandpa's it meant something totally different, especially in the cold of a Canadian winter. Might as well put on 20 pounds of clothing and try not to die under a collapsed snow fort in the backyard, right?
So, I found myself caught in watching some episodes. I don't remember any of the content or story lines, just a few faces - some of which are still on air today! - and the way the people spoke and interacted with one another.
Language and culture of Coronation Street
This type of soft influence is the stuff of dreams for the geopolitics of international relations.
Ken Barlow alone has been on the television and around the world for nearly 60 years, can you imagine actor William Roache entered the industry with intent to shape the world's understanding of life in everyday Britain for more than half a century?
Before I ever stepped foot outside of North America I knew that I was watching the show on the telly, obviously a special, abbreviated and more efficient type of television. That I might go up to the shops rather than downtown.
Not only did I learn that my friends were my mates, but there would also be blokes and chaps in addition to guys and men. We might all get along in the most British way possible, by taking the mick out of one another and sometimes ourselves. That self-deprecating humor, although not entirely the most prevalent on Coronation Street, might be the single most valuable ice breaker I'd ever learn and the crux of British comedy & culture.
Want to make new friends in a new city faster? Don't start with how great you are and how much cool stuff you've done, tell them about the last time you messed up hard and make a joke about it. As a serious solo travel veteran, you can trust me. You'll have a better experience for sharing an embarrassing story.
Shorten (nearly) everything
Although English is the most widely spoken language in Canada and the United States, perhaps we take it for granted just how we use it and not only why we use it the way we do, but what it means of our respective cultures in the ways we use it.
For example, spelling. American English famously cuts the "u" out of so many words. Think, colour, favourite, or neighbour. Apparently it helped cut costs and sped up the printing process, proving the need for brevity in the printed word but not necessarily the spoken one.
It often feels as though British English, Britspeak if you will, gives us more tools to wrap our words around to the same outcome. Adding flavor to speech or options which cut down the time it takes to say something. Use of a certain word might help identify the home town of a new friend or acquaintance, you'll even find a name for the people of that town if you listen hard enough.
One of my favorites, monkey hangers for the people of Hartleypool. Legend has it a ship wrecked off the town's coast during the time of Napoleon and locals could not communicate with one of the more unique crew members. They had never encountered a Frenchman nor before seen a monkey, and, having refused to answer any questions during its interrogation, was hanged on the beach as a French spy.
Two centuries later, everyone from Hartlepool is a monkey hanger. I mean, it's catchier than Hartlipudlians, no?
I often reflect that it is just the simplifying of spoken language in many examples, as though our tongues are too lazy to speak each word we mean and we might as well save some energy by dropping the ends of words, whole prepositions, and even swapping entire phrases for a word or two instead.
The only exception from this abbreviation I can think of is the type of rhyming slang abused by the likes of Mike Myers. Why use one word when you can use three or more and confuse the hell out of everyone? Probably when you're up to no good, that's when. But that's a story for another day.
Such shortening and slang happens in other languages, but I sometimes joke that this abbreviated way of speaking is a fitting escape from the bureaucracy and imposing paperwork generated by everyday life in the UK.
Even the name of the show gets shortened, people watch Corrie and not Coronation Street.
Tell me about your own similar experience in the comments or write me discreetly (offline) if you fear your nan. I mean, if you fear your nan will disapprove of your disapproval!
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