The first time I heard someone exclaim, “There’s an Orc behind the ship!” this summer, I twirled in surprise, nervously quick-drawing my binoculars. In moody light, the mountain peaks of Svalbard—an isolated archipelago about 1,000 miles north of Norway—can assume an insidious, Mordorish aspect, and, for a fleeting instant, I wondered if our ship had somehow sailed into Lord of the Rings.
But the “Orc” was just a tiny, football-shaped Dovekie, bobbing peacefully along in our wake. Most guests on board the Akademik Sergey Vavilov (a Russian-owned, ice-class expedition cruise vessel) hail from Britain, as one might expect in the high European Arctic. It took me a while to pick up their accent and terminology. What we Americans know as a Dovekie, Europeans call a Little Auk—and “Auk” and “Orc” (and, for that matter, “Ark”) pretty much sound alike in British parlance. Just imagine if Noah’s Ark had hosted both Dovekies and mythical humanoid creatures; the poor Limeys would never be able to sort it out.
A few days after the Auk/Orc incident, another Brit pointed at a disgusting pile of seal entrails on an ice floe (left there by a polar bear) and clearly announced, “Hey, look at that dirty girl!” This time, I didn’t even blink. Grown wise to British mispronunciation, I knew he must be referring to the blood-stained Ivory Gull perched delicately on top of the kill.
“GULL,” I replied, leaning heavy on the U.
“GIRL,” he repeated.
It sounded the same to me. “Say ‘gull,’ then say ‘girl,’” I suggested.
I shook my head.
And then someone else called out: “Arctic Skua—right above that boy in the water!”
“BUOY,” I corrected. “BOY doesn’t have a U in it. Buoy, boy, buoy, boy.”
I thought, desperately: If the Brits wrote GULLS and BUOYS on their loos (er, restrooms), would any of them even notice?
Meanwhile, in my head, I translated the first part of the sentence. Arctic Skua, an unfamiliar name to us Americans, is, in fact, what we call a Parasitic Jaeger. Same species, different name, different continent.
No wonder our two cultures are said to be separated by a common language. Although only about 30 bird species regularly occur in Svalbard, nearly half of them have different European and American English names. Our loons to their divers, our murres to their guillemots. (Next time you visit Alaska, try shouting “Brünnich’s Guillemot” instead of “Thick-billed Murre;” your friends will think you’ve discovered a mega-rarity.)
Then there’s my personal favorite: Our Red Phalarope is the same as their Grey Phalarope. It makes perfect sense, really. We define the bird by its sunny, summertime plumage, while the Brits named it for its monochromatic wintertime appearance—probably while hunched over bangers and mash in a dark pub on a rainy afternoon.
As the on-board ornithologist for five back-to-back expedition cruises around Svalbard this summer, I had plenty of time to absorb all kinds of accents. For my first-ever visit to Europe, this was an odd introduction. Most of the passengers were British, but our ship also hosted plenty of other Europeans, South Africans, Aussies, Kiwis, and the occasional Chinese. In such an international crowd, my own nationality was notably absent (the average American, I’ve discovered, hasn’t even heard of Svalbard). All these folks came, mostly, to look for polar bears, which are the main attraction at Svalbard—in two months, I saw more than 50 of the furry beasts. But I did my best to point out birds whenever possible, and to interpret a bit of U.S. culture along the way. International relations depend on common ground, after all.
“This,” I liked to lecture at the lunch buffet, “is a pickle. And here we have a pepper, eggplant, and some arugula.”
“You mean to say,” came the invariable answer, “that’s a gherkin, with a capsicum, aubergine, and some rocket. Right?”
No wonder so many bird names are different—we can’t even agree on the ingredients in a salad. Of course, it works both ways. Vastly outnumbered, I took more good-natured flak from the Brits than I could possibly dish out.
“Hey, did you hear that Gandhi was once asked about American civilization?” an English guy said to me one afternoon, as were watching a flock of Pink-footed Geese in the distance.
“Oh yeah?” I answered. “What did he say?”
“He thought it would be a great idea!”
But for all these differences, I had to admit that, for the most part, our counterparts across the pond have the same capacity—if not more—to love and appreciate birds as we do. Sure, they talk kinda funny, but British twitchers are way more hard core than most American birders are. A few years ago, when a Golden-winged Warbler was spotted in a quiet English suburb, more than 3,000 birders showed up the next day to look for it. Three thousand! And the annual British Bird Fair is estimated to attract 20,000-40,000 birders each August. Nothing in the U.S. birding scene even begins to compare.
By the end of the season, I’d also realized something else: All these people, with their biscuits and tea and auks and divers, are actually incredibly normal. In their midst, I was the one mispronouncing the English language. It’s difficult to think of yourself as the one with an accent even when far from home; not until a little girl remarked, “You talk funny!” did the thought even occur to me. On a ship full of well-to-do passengers from the world’s richest countries, I hardly expected a cultural experience in Svalbard this summer. As it turned out, that cultural experience was me.