Tag Archives: language

Keeping mum

When you tell people that you’re going to become a father for the first time (or in my case, a father to a baby for the first time, given the presence of The Young Ones), you suddenly find yourself playing a game of Baby Bingo. As the well-meaning person you’re talking to rattles off platitudes with the staccato regularity of a machine gun, you can chuckle (or over dramatically fake abject terror) like it’s the first time you heard them, and surreptitiously tick each one off your list. Once you reach ten, you scream “Baby Bingo!” and run out of the room with your arms flailing above your head, before returning exhausted two minutes later to breathlessly wheeze “I’m a Baby Bingo winner and I hereby claim my five poundsdollars!”

Some of the bingo boxes are more easy to get than others, of course. “When is she due?” is practically checked before your conversational cohort has opened his or her mouth. I’ve become accustomed to answering “Are you having a boy or a girl? ” with “I certainly hope so!” such is the frequency of its use. And if I had a dollar for every time somebody said “Better catch up on your sleep now!” I’d be a rich man (although not rich enough to pay for even half the paraphernalia you seem to need to deal with the consequences of a steamy night nine months previously).

Other phrases come with perhaps less regularity, although still maintaining a frequency that would be the envy of the New York subway system if translated to trains. “Everything changes as soon as you take the first look at the baby” is a current favourite, while “Have you ever changed a nappydiaper before?” also seems to be a popular one right now. And don’t get me started on the number of differnt variations that people find in order to say “your life is about to come to an end”.

Having had so many questions and comments (solicited or otherwise) I thought I was ready for everything. Until I realiszed that my child is going to be born an American, and is therefore going to say ‘mom’ rather than ‘mum’. And frankly that put a bit of a dampener on my day.

Most Americaniszations I can deal with, to be honest, and I’ve learned to translate in my head before opening my mouth. But the moment I say ‘mom’ or ‘mommy’ will be a cold day in hell.

‘Mom’ just seems as uniquely American as peanut butter and ‘jelly’ sandwiches, or waterboarding suspected terrorists. I’ve already had to accept that the child might grow up to think that Hershey’s is an acceptable form of chocolate, or that there really is any point in (American) football. But there are some boundaries that really can’t be crossed. And that starts with ‘mom’. I’m British and proud of it, and I simply won’t give in to this slow and insidious creeping Yankification.

Now, enough of this chat – I’m off to have a bagel. Have a nice day y’all.

We even have electricity

I know that it feels like America has been living in the dark ages for a while, and that Tuesday evening saw the re-emergence of this country as a respected player on the world stage. But it wasn’t until I went home to the UK this weekend that I realised just how far some people believe the United States has slipped behind.

Having questioned me at length about different British and American names for certain vegetables, Little Sis furrowed her brow and asked:

“Do you have apples and pears in America?”

This country’s return from the brink can’t happen soon enough, clearly.

Problems with the trouble and strife*

They say that men and women talk different languages, but in the case of The Special One and I, that’s pretty much true. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been forced to deconstruct a sentence in order to get to the heart of what I’ve actually been trying to communicate. And that’s just when I’m saying goodbye as I leave for work.

For more complex sentences, we generally play a high-speed version of charades. Sure, that can be embarrassing when all she’s doing is asking me whether I want whipped cream on top of my Starbucks coffee, but needs must. (Incidentally for charade aficionados out there, in this case I generally opt for a mime something along the lines of ‘one word, sounds like *performs passable impression of Steve Redgrave winning Olympic gold with oar in hand in the coxless four*’)

It’s true that I use peculiarly British phrases from time to time, such as those times I’m “gagging for a beer” or “losing my rag”. On those occasions, The Special One generally just raises her eyebrows and inwardly rues the day that she ever met me. Sometimes she’ll choose to mimic my voice instead. Sadly the quality of her British impression is such that even the mighty Dick van Dyke would give her a rueful look and advise her not to give up the dayjob.

The linguistic divide between us entered a new realm yesterday when I told The Young Ones to get their stuff together and head “up the apples and pears”. The expression cast in my direction by all three of them suggested I had just asked them to kill a litter of puppies.

And so began an hour long conversation with The Special One about cockney rhyming slang, and its importance to the vocabulary of even non-Londoners.

BOOW: “What do you think frog and toad is?”

TSO: “It’s a series of children’s books that are very highly regarded. I used to read them to The Eldest all the time when he was a kid. I didn’t really use them with The Youngest though as she was more into mer…”

BOOW: “It’s cockney rhyming slang for a road. What about pork pies”

TSO: “Are they those nasty things with the jelly in?”

BOOW: “It means lies. Septic tank is Yank, Ruby Murray is curry, and dog and bone is phone.”

At that point, The Special One tutted loudly, proclaimed that the whole thing was a load of rubbish, and muttered something under her breath about the Boston Tea Party. If she owned stars and stripes pyjamas, she’d probably have put them on too.

“Besides,” she joked, “most Americans don’t even know where Cockney is.”

At least, I think she was joking…

* ‘Trouble and strife’ = wife. After this post, mine may well be slapping me in my boat race…

I come from a land down under

Having tired of the geographical incorrectness of calling me a shandy drinking southerner, She Who Was Born To Worry has now taken to calling me her ‘Yank son’. Not that she actually has another son and needs to differentiate us as a result. Although there has been talk of an elusive half-brother called Eric (the forklift truck driver from Belgium) now that I come to think about it…

Actually, I think she just imagines that I’ll pick up the phone to her one day and start talking with the mid-Atlantic twang much beloved of the likes of Joan Collins and Shirley Bassey. As it happens, I’m taking active measures to ensure that never happens, including listening to plenty of podcasts from British radio, and a compulsory three hours of BBC America every week. I’ve even persuaded The Special One to watch the first series of Spooks with me, having picked the DVD up on a whim at Heathrow Airport. She’s not so keen on the presence of Keeley Hawes, but as I’ve presented it as a means to maintain my British identity, I think I’m going to get away with it.

The strange thing is that while She Who Was Born To Worry thinks I might be in danger of turning into an American, America is pretty convinced that I’m not even British in the first place.

When accent identification skills were being handed out, America was obviously eating a burger and fries, and reading Entertainment Weekly. In what is rapidly becoming the linguistic equivalent of Pin the Tail on the Donkey, I’ve lost count of the number of people who, on hearing my pretty robustly English voice, have firmly identified me as an Australian. I’m not alone in the problem either – as far as most Americans are concerned, Brits must be walking around with metaphorical corks dangling from metaphorical hats, throwing virtual shrimps on the barbie. The grill, that is, not the faintly pneumatic Mattel creation.

The strange thing is that Australia has a population three times smaller than the UK’s, and most Americans will never even have met an Australian, let alone correctly identified one. In contrast, the relatively close relationship between Britain and the USA (and the fact that it only takes seven hours to get between the two, rather than more than twenty) means that Britain and the British are a much more familiar concept than Australia and Australians. Of course, with many Americans still struggling to understand the need for a passport, it’s likely that Lilliput and Lilliputians are more familiar than the two combined, but that’s a side issue.

Incidentally, I’ve been also been identified as Irish, German and Scandinavian as well since arriving in the States. It’s a source of undeniable pleasure that nobody’s accused me of beingcalled me an American yet. It’s only a matter of time.

As I cooked dinner tonight, The Special One and The Young Ones sat down to watch the X Men movie. Having seen an interview with the cast half way through, The Youngest excitedly bound into the kitchen to say that she had no idea that Wolverine was British. Ironically, Hugh Jackman’s actually an Australian. The three of them have been living me for a year now, so their ‘all foreigners must be Australians’ radar will have to go in for a 10,000 mile service.

Zut alors

When I was a mere glint in America’s eye, our French teacher told the likes of The Beancounter, Broadsheet Benny and I that we would only be fluent in the language when we thought in French. As it was, most of us couldn’t tell our derrieres from our coudes, let alone ponder the existential meaning of life in the tongue of our Gallic cousins. And besides, why would we think in French when it would leave less room for us to consider the important matters of the day, such as Ghostbusters, Panini stickers, the FA Cup draw, and how to snowball teachers and still get away with it?

Being no linguistic expert means that wherever I travel, I’m always translating from the local tongue into English, working out what I need to say, and then translating back into the relevant language. Such a laborious process can tragically turn into an internalised version of Chinese Whispers (or the markedly less impressive ‘Telephone’, as The Special One calls it), where a series of small mistranslations leads to me replying to a waiter asking if I want milk in my coffee with a suggestion that his wife did indeed look like an elephant.

But finally after nearly 35 years of trying, I think I’ve finally cracked it – I’ve mastered a foreign language to the point where I am now able to think and speak in the local tongue without translating into the English in between. Admittedly ‘American’ may be more of a dialect than a language, but you try living in a country that refuses to pronounce the ‘t’ in ‘water’ and see if you still feel the same then.

Today in a phone conversation with an American colleague, I managed to suggest (without even missing a beat) a series of non-specific options by using the phrase “we’ll need to go back to them with ‘ex’, ‘why’ and ‘zee’”. I was part way through the next sentence by the time I realised what I’d done, and had to stop myself and drop a random ‘zed’ into the conversation just to reiterate my Britishness.

Then on the way home I saw a billboard for the Home Run Derby. I have no idea what one of those is, although I suspect it involves slightly overweight men playing big boys rounders. The point is that I looked at the sign and wondered idly to myself what a ‘home run durr-bee’ was. That’s despite almost half my family having been born and raised in the East Midlands town of Derby, with its British pronunciation of ‘darr-bee’.

I can’t work out whether I’m proud or disturbed.

Ironically, the comfort with language won’t last as I’m off to France next week for a week of relaxation in the sun, and I’ll suddenly be back to struggling in a foreign tongue. Here’s hoping I can get my fair share of coffee and croissants without inadvertently reminding the waiting staff of the grey large eared mammal-esque qualities of their spouse, eh?

Death, where is thy sting?

After two long flights, and a lot of late nights with work and with friends, I’ve found myself encumbered with an early summer cold. Not the slight sniffles of a borderline hay fever attack, but the full on “I need thirty tissues to get through every hour” man cold, which could conceivably bring about my death in the next thirty six hours.

It’s bad enough trying to get myself understood in this city at the best of times, but when I’m bunged up with a cold I may as well be talking in Swahili for all the good my voice does me. Simple requests such as “can I have a glass of water” turn into “get the bath, I’m passing borders”. Which would be useful if I was, say, on the verge of entering Mexico and needed a scrub down. But not so much when I’m parched and desperate to get liquids into my system.

My sudden descent into languagelessness is at least an incentive to get better quickly, and with that in mind, I made the trip to Rite Aid at lunchtime to pick up all the potions and concoctions I could carry.

Rite Aid is a strange shop. I know it has been a pretty successful chain, but I have no idea how it managed to persuade people to shop there in the first place, and it’s now clinging on to its former glories. Their stock levels can only be described as pitiful, and their commitment to customer service is barely higher than Kraft’s commitment to producing one-off artisanal cheeses. I swear I stood waiting in a queueline for fifteen minutes today. There were only two people ahead of me.

But it’s not their ability to engender irrational hatred that bothers me, it’s their weird choice in products. Now, bear in mind that this place is a glorified pharmacy. Sure, they’ve got hairsprays, toothbrushes, deodorants and photo printing, but essentially it’s all about the vitamins, pain killers, creams and ointments. Things to help you get better if you’re ill. Items that will aid your recovery from trauma, and get you back on the road to fitness and health. A cornucopia of wellness restoration.

And beer.

Great big fridges of the stuff. Bottles and bottles of Corona, Heineken and Miller, chilled to perfection and waiting for a willing high blood pressure/broken arm/mosquito bite sufferer to take them home and numb the pain away. It’s like putting the Algerian branch of Agoraphobics Anonymous in the middle of the Sahara.

Personally I think Rite Aid are in cahoots with the makers of Tylenol in a desperate attempt to bump up sales. Buy two six packs and they’ll thrown in some liquid capsules for a dollar.

Grunt work

You’d probably have to speak to my mum about this, but it’s a fair bet to assume that when I was an insolent teen, barely a two syllable word crossed my lips. After all, why use a complicated phrase when a perfunctory grunt will suffice? Insufferable teen boys bear more resemblance to mountain gorillas than the insufferable grown men they will eventually become. Although gorillas at least tidy up after themselves, and don’t throw a strop when they’re told that they can’t watch Grange Hill and need to set the table instead.

Of course, the tried-and-tested stock phrase of the teen – male or female – is ‘uh-huh’. ‘Uh-huh’ is the gift that just keeps on giving. Trying to get an overbearing grandparent off the phone? Just ‘uh-huh’ in response to every single question (especially when the question is ‘are you capable of saying anything other than ‘uh-huh’?). Want peas with that? ‘Uh-huh’ to your heart’s content (even if the thought of peas makes your stomach turn – then at least you can throw a tantrum when they’re eventually put on your plate).

But, as I believe Paul said when he hastily typed one of his lengthy emails to the Corinthians, when we become men, we put away childish things. Or at least hide them in the corner and hope that nobody will notice. ‘Uh-huh’ was banished to the outer-reaches of our consciousness, and only called upon on occasions of national importance. Such as when The Special One asks me if I want another beer while United are on the attack in a vital season-altering game.

So ‘uh-huh’ was abandoned at about age 17, and never heard from again. Until I came to the United States, that is. Here, ‘uh-huh’ falls into the facile platitude category, and I swear that I hear it on a near daily basis. It’s essentially substituting for ‘you’re welcome’ or ‘it was nothing’. Or even ‘you’re bloody lucky that I’m such a nice guy and have demeaned myself by helping you out’.

It’s weirdly off-putting though to thank somebody profusely for their contribution to a project (even if that project is ‘ensuring that my caffeine level doesn’t dip below a five cup minimum’) and have them respond with a phrase more suited to a sweetcandy stealing youth with oozing spots and a penchant for mutilation, than to a smartly-dressed professional.

I’ve decided that the only way to counter this verbal drift is by turning the tables. Next time somebody asks me ‘what’s up’, I’m going to launch into a prolonged discussion of Japanese economics, and the effects of optimum taxation on the common man.

It’s the only language these people understand.

‘Z’ for ‘zero respect’

I’m more than 34 weeks into my American adventure, not that I’m counting. And for all the times I put my foot in it, get on a train heading in completely the wrong direction, or get looked at as if I’m a founding member of the National Association for the Protection of Cockroaches, I don’t think that I’m fitting in all that badly.

I’ve managed to give directions successfully, and can offer helpful advice to tourists stranded in the city. I barely notice that the cars drive on the wrong side of the road, and I even manage to say the word ‘jeez’ in every other sentence. OK, that last bit is a lie. All readers should feel free to shoot on sight if ever you hear me say ‘jeez’, ‘neat’ or ‘dweeb’. Tough on linguistic assimilation, tough on the causes of linguistic assimilation – it’s the only way.

Where I’m most proud is that – unlike Hillary Clinton – I seem to have developed the ability to pick the right word at the right time to suit my audience. There’ll be no misspeaking on my watch, I can tell you. My line of work is all about words, and I constantly have to make sure that I’m spelling the same word in different ways depending on who I’m writing to. And despite some initial expletive-causing errors (thankfully I can shout ‘bollocks’ at the top of my voice here, and people couldn’t care less), I’ve managed to provide color or colour, caliber or calibre, or theater or theatre in the right place at the right time in pretty much all circumstances.

In fact, so good has my ability been to become a language chameleon that I was even worried that maybe I was becoming a little too accomplished at this ‘being American’ lark. I’m possibly a little over-sensitive to any accusation of becoming more US than UK, given that a sizeable proportion of my friends regularly threaten to bring down all manner of violence on me if they ever hear even the slightest indication of a mid-Atlantic twang. Frankly, the fact that I’ve barely mastered English should be enough to convince them that I’ve got no chance of speaking American, but still they carry out precise scientific tests every time I land in Britain, just to make sure that my accent hasn’t shifted by even an nth of a degree.

Sadly, I fear that my Americanization may already be under way. Yesterday I drafted up some copy for a colleague, and correctly managed to use ‘center’, ‘licensing’ and ‘honor’ among many other words. I avoided every possible vocabulary trap with considerable aplomb, and sent it off for approval with a smile on my face.

And indeed, everything proved to be perfect. Except for one spelling mistake.

I’d spelled ‘merchandising’ with a ‘z’. Merchandizing. Every other word in the American language appears to have a ‘z’ rather than an ‘s’ before ‘ing’, so I just naturally assumed that merchandising followed suit. Incredibly, I’d managed to over-translate. I had to be taught how to use the English language by somebody whose country can’t say herb without dropping the ‘h’.

I’m more American than an American, it would seem.

Sure you can tell me that some people do spell it ‘merchandizing’ but that’s no comfort to me now. I am but a short step from eating pumpkin pie and putting my hand on my heart for the Star Spangled Banner. The end is nigh.

Le petit dejeuner

Whatever you think about the French, you can’t help but admire their collective desire to protect their language. The French tongue is, after all, one of the things that defines them most as a nation, and it is rightly their belief that any attempts to erode its significance – particularly by the gathered forces of the English speaking world – is something to be resisted.

Famously, France is the nation that placed quotas on the amount of French language music that legally has to be played on radio stations around the country. To this day, around 40% of all music played on French radio stations has to be sung in French, and companies that fail to comply can face fines of up to 5% of their annual revenues.

Given that French is one of the most beautiful languages on this planet, I’m all for any laws that help preserve its integrity. And to be honest, maybe the laws should be extended to the United States as well.

When it comes down to it, the Americans still haven’t forgiven the French for failing to stand by them when it came to invading Iraq. Obviously by far the biggest weapon of reprisal that America had at its disposal was renaming French fries as ‘freedom fries’. This is a vindictive slight that the French may never recover from. After all, how could a country with a reputation as being the greatest gastronomic nation on earth ever get over the fact that the United States would cease to use the French tag to describe deep-fried bits of potato?

Perhaps having realiszed the ridiculousness of their efforts, America has returned to adopting the British tactic of undermining the French by use of the powerful tool of deliberate mispronunciation.

Infact, America may be the one nation that makes even less effort to use proper French than the English do. In France last week, ‘merci’ (‘thank you’ in English) was bastardised by most Americans from its traditional ‘mare-sea’ to ‘mercy’, while it’s best not even to think about what they do with words like foie gras.

It’s all understandable of course – while British schoolkids were being forced to learn French, our American counterparts were reluctantly attempting to learn Spanish. But some words have become so engrained in the American vocabulary that their mispronunciation can only be part of a deliberate attempt to stick two fingers up atgive the finger to the French.

All of which brings me to the croissant. Yes, that curl of delicious pastry that is so irresistible to people of all nationalities. To everybody outside of America, it’s known as the cwa-ssan or cra-wa-ssan. Within the boundaries of the United States, it’s the cress-ont.

Sadly, I can’t quite bring myself to mispronounce it, which means that anytime I want a croissant, I generally either have to desperately point at my intended breakfast bread – or else shamefacedly translate into American, and hope that no European hears me. Still, if I can’t make people understand me when I’m speaking English, what chance have I got with French?

There’s only one solution to the problem. Yup, it’s back to having a bagel for breakfast.

The word you’re looking for is ‘yes’

I’ve already found myself with a scary habit of saying ‘sure’ when I’m responding to a question in the affirmative.

Do you want a glass of wine? Sure!

Shall we go out tonight? Sure!!

Can we just go into this shop? Sure!!!

If anybody hears me say ‘sure’ on any future trip to the UK, you have my permission to shoot me.