Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Language Barrier

I suppose I'm biased, but I do like American English. We have enough words for things. Why? Because we steal them.
You know he's got gummi bears in there too, right?
Sometimes, we steal a word because it is already the perfect word, like gestalt. Sometimes, a word just comes along with the foreign object or idea it describes, like boomerang. And sometimes, we just need a fancier way to say "with ice cream."

Some adopted words are more regional. For instance, if my grandmother told my dad to "sit on his fesses," he would naturally sit the way most people would choose to -- on his butt. However, tell that to a classroom of mostly From Away kindergarteners, and they will stare at you in horror and disbelief as they try to work out the mechanics of sitting on their faces (as my Parisian friend Beatrice found out).

Scott Adams
"Is this right?"
Of course, other languages steal from us and each other, too, though in some cases it's more covert and revolutionary.

"Écoutez, sales cons! See what happens when you order le hamburger?"
In America, we tend to embrace foreign words, even though as a nation we have a hard time embracing foreign people. Maybe the less xenophobic are simply interested in learning about other cultures (and preserving their own), and the more xenophobic just don't realize they're not speaking Eng -- er, American.

We can even become fiercely protective of our foreign words and their Americanized descendants. I inadvertently started a war on the internet recently when I complained about the way McDonald's is making its New England employees pronounce the name of its new ice cream beverage -- "frap-ay." Anyone from here knows the word ("frappe") is pronounced "frap." That's just what they are. We drink them ALL THE TIME. Trust me, New Englanders know ice cream. Ice cream and covered bridges.

Man, we are lousy with these things.
But my comment spurred heated controversy amongst my geographically diverse internet friends. Those of us in "frap" camp were told to look at the etymology, to examine the accent over the "e" (which New Englanders don't use), to look it up in a dictionary, for God's sake!

The thing is, you can argue these things all day -- etymological purity or regional adaptation? And whichever side you come down on, the fact that people are so protective of words is a cool thing. We need to keep being protective of our quirky little words, because one day we may need them only to find they've been lost.

Beatrice (who says "le milkshake," since "frappĂ©" is an adjective in actual French) and I talk about language a lot. After all, most stuffy dictionaries aren't going to help you with words you really need, like "booger" ("crotte de nez"). That's why it's helpful to have a buddy whose first language is different from your own. A couple generations ago, that wouldn't necessarily have been the case with Beatrice and me, but my family got the French stomped out of them before I got here.

Not that my learning Canadian French at home instead of Parisian French at school would have guaranteed the flow of conversation. On a recent trip to the countryside outside Montreal, I whispered to Beatrice with embarrassment, "I can't understand a word they're saying." She laughed and shrugged. "Me neither!"

Sometimes we'll come across a word that she doesn't know in English (rare) and that I don't know in French (less rare), but we can usually figure it out eventually. We had an interesting conversation last weekend about the difference between a potter and a pothead.

"Volde-something? I dunno, man. But I'm totally feeling some Doritos."
I don't know why, but I always think it's hilarious when we find a word that is exactly the same in both languages. There's something about the exchange, "How do you say, 't-shirt'?" "T-shirt," that I find endlessly amusing.

But we don't always know when we'll stumble upon these magical crossover words. A few years ago, when Beatrice's son was in maybe third grade, I was eating lunch with him. He had his food in a closed tupperware container, and I said, "What do you have for lunch?"

He stared at the tupperware and then at me. He furrowed his brow, clearly frustrated. Eventually, with a tone of defeat, he said, "I don't know how to say it in English."

"That's okay," I said. "What is it in French?"

He answered immediately. "Quiche!"

The language of delicious.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

In MY Day, We Had To . . .

I've recently become the proud owner of this early 20th century handbook:

It contains everything you needed to know about everything, from handling your finances to keeping chickens to staining your musical instruments.

No more excuses for shoddy cement. I'm looking at you, Al Capone.

Needless to say, I am now significantly more well-informed than the rest of you, and will have a much greater chance of survival during the zombie/vampire/unfinished wood apocalypse.

But I am nothing if not astonishingly magnanimous, so I thought I would share two excerpts that will be particularly useful to writers.

The first, of course, is how to make your own writing desk:

(Click to enlarge.)
Your homemade desk looks like a million bucks!
(Literally, with prices adjusted for inflation.)
And when you're done with your desk, you only need to make yourself some new ink, and you're all set to go!

Beats the heck out of tickling squids.
That's how they get it, right? Tickling?

So what are you waiting for? The Great American Novel awaits! Here, I'll get you started: Once upon a time, there were two middle-to-upper-class families. Or maybe three. And there were, like, a hundred people in each family, who I will now name one by one, even though you won't be able to keep most of them straight anyway...

Ah. Potassium bicromate, logwood extract, borax, shellac, and ammonia . . . the smell of LITERATURE!