Feeling My Language

March 25, 2018

 

 A woman from Michigan walks into a bar in El Bruc, Spain. She orders what she thought was a bottle of lemon-lime soda pop, but it turns out to be. . . .

 

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That starts like a million other jokes, but not knowing what food and drink you ordered to put in your mouth because you don’t know the language becomes an act of terror. My nightmare is I would end up drinking cleaning fluid.

 

Before I came here, the first thing people asked about my trip to Spain was, do you speak the language? The answer was no, which is and means the same world over.

 

But can I get by on “no”? “si” and courtesies like "gracias" and "por favor?"

 

So far, yes, except in the bar, where for the life of me I cannot say cider in Spanish correctly. I do not even try to translate Fireball.

 

People here speak several languages, including body language. I wanted to buy an ink pen in the supermercat, and had to touch the one the clerk was holding so she could understand. (LOL, the word body might have had you thinking 'sex,' but my husband is at home.)

 

I spend time listening to those for whom English is their second (or third) language. It makes me pause and go, ummm.

 

 

 

 

Agostina is a native Spanish speaker from Argentina. She pronounces the letter “i” as a hard “e,” and “e” as a soft “a.”

 

That pronounciation turns an English word she loves into something quite charming. The word is spelled, b-i-t-c-h-e-s.

 

It rolls off Agostina’s tongue in two syllables. She pronounces it, bee-chez.

 

She sounds as if she is saying beaches. With Agostina that could be a sandy place, as in, “let’s swim some beaches.” Or it could be her friends, as in “Let’s swim some, beaches.

 

She loves the word, but I never heard her call any one person, a bitch.

 

No, the group of us at Can Serrat were bee-chez. She called us so while we were playing a parlor game.

 

At the end of the massive stone dining table on the terrace, dark-haired Agostina sat at the far end under the arbor, a self-rolled cigarette between her fingers. 

 

The group was set to play a version of a game some know as Assassin, but at our table the game is called Werewolf.

 

We picked slips of paper telling us our role in the game.

 

My slip said, villager. I am dead meat unless, before I get killed, I can convince my fellow villagers to vote to kill the person I think is the werewolf.

 

The narrator asks all to close eyes, and then the werewolves to open theirs so they can meet their pack.

 

First round, all eyes shut, intensity mounted in silence as, with hand signals, the werewolves take their kill.

 

Then all eyes opened, and looked around nervously as the narrator weaved the flesh-shredding tale -- screams and all-- of the first victim’s slaying. It was Agostina.

 

She flicked off the butt of her ciggie, and raised up from her seat. As she left us, she eyed the group, annoyed at being the first one killed. Her parting word came clear and sultry, “Bee-chez.”

 

 

 Sven is from Croatia and his name is pronounced like the American bicycle company, Schwinn. He works as a music critic writing for Croatians about American emo bands.

 

Sven is the sexiest young writer in Croatia (he told me to say that), but his English is fluent and fast American.

 

An only child, Sven’s father is a writer and his mother an architect. When speaking of those two dear ones, Sven said, “My fadder and my mudder.”

 

His speech reminds me of the 1960s comedy song by Allan Sherman. “Hello muddah, hello faddah, here we are at, Camp Granada.”

 

Sven’s English would be perfect, I think, if only he would master the “t” sound.

Sven could say “father” and “mother,” if he worked at it, but his elocution may be signifying something deeper than a lazy tongue.

 

Sven was born in Yugoslavia; now he lives in Croatia, but Sven never moved. Croatia is the former Yugoslavia. He is a citizen of an unstable nation.

 

In his essay, “The Creative Process,” James Baldwin, wrote, “the artist must know, and he must let us know, that there is no thing stable under heaven.”

 

Sven’s missing “t’s” reminds me that in 2018, countries can be fluid places, changing their identity. I thank god, I pray that the United States, my country, won’t be one of them.  

 

I know what it is like to be unstable in language identity. When my husband was working in New York City, his employment and residence was in Queens, the borough that includes Flushing, the neighborhood at the end of the subway 7 line.

 

Flushing is no Manhattan, where the television program Sex and the City was set.

 

In Flushing, English was fourth or fifth down on the list of languages. Signs on businesses were in Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese. The church I attended, St. Georges, held services in Mandarin and Cantonese.  Spanish could be heard on the street, but most English words appeared on street signs and municipal buildings, such as the public library.

 

I grew lonely for my native tongue. One day I decided, if English will not come to me, I will go to it. I called my husband at work.

 

“I am going to America,” I announced, and I boarded the 7 train bound for Manhattan.

 

Let me say this: America is great. Our political system makes the world green-eyed in jealousy that a country so big in land mass and hundreds of millions in population finds ways to preserve itself, even as sometimes we must repair to our separate corners.

 

The way some Europeans show their gratitude to Americans for ending two brutal wars is to make sure their children understand the U.S. They do that by teaching them our language from the time they enter school.

Educated Europeans know English, they speak it, they read it, but it is a formal language for them. I get the impression that they view it as a tax to pay.

 

“I am sorry,” one of my housemates apologized one night after dinner when she stopped speaking English. “I just want to speak my language.”

 

She launches into Spanish, the language she was taught at home in love.

 

Nelson Mandela said: “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.”

 

One day I say to my Europeans how I envy them their many languages. The Englishman among us, Duncan, chimes in, “It is so humiliating to have only one language.”

And speaking as an African-American woman, a language forced upon us.

 

A fruit in America’s horn of plenty is our many English dialects. This scene from Kid and Play’s film House Party illustrates how far apart Americans can be linguistically-speaking.

 

Kid is in the principal’s office being disciplined for fighting when he protests, “but he called my mother a ho’.” The principal turns to the other boy, “why in God’s name did you call his mother a garden tool?”

 

American English is not self-contained. It is an amalgam. It adopts words from all its people: the ones in the street; the French (croissant), the Spanish (amigo), Italians (pasta), Greeks (democracy), Germans (beer). The people stolen from Africa brought us goobers (peanuts), and yam (orange potatoes).

 

American English articulates meaning beyond words. How backward those Americans who want our worldly spirit to wither by showing the door to people who do not have papers with the right words, as if that is even a thing for the U.S.

 

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So, the Michigan woman in the Spanish bar makes a bad face at the lemon-lime soda which wasn’t. Seeing this the bartender says, “beer.” It was 60% cerveza (beer) and 40% lemon. The Michigan woman sipped it. It was not so bad.

 

 

 

 

 

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