This video is in German, but you’ll enjoy it whether you speak German or not.

I hope you enjoy your time with the barber, barmaid, and barbarians at Barbara’s bar.




The English language is full of pitfalls.



The word “rooster” has come to replace the older word “cock,” meaning “male chicken”; the older (and perfectly respectable) word is now a vulgarism, although it still shows up in contexts like “fighting cocks” and “cock-a-doodle-doo.”



You have to watch your language.



I was putting together a bicycle rack the other day out of the sidewalk. It was fairly straightforward – just simple nuts and bolts. But one of the nuts jumped out of my hand. As I walked back and forth looking for it, our mailman came by. “Looking for something?” he asked.



“Yeah,” I said. “I’m looking for my – um – “ (Now, think about how ridiculous I would have sounded if I’d finished the sentence with the right word. So I was a coward and decided to use the wrong word.) “Bolt,” I said. “I dropped a bolt.”



He pointed at the bolt I’d just put down. “Is that it?”



“Nah,” I said. “Different one. I’m sure I’ll find it. It must be around here somewhere. It probably just rolled away. I’ll just buy a new one.”



Just imagine if I’d used the right word, kids. Just imagine!


Grammar, social status, and success


I dislike people who are grammar purists, who quibble over “who” and “whom.” or over “that” and “which.” (This is mostly because I have trouble with these myself.)



But when people can’t tell the difference between “to” and “too” and “two,” or between “their” and “they’re,” or “its” and “it’s,” I get a little riled up.



So I suppose I’m one of those damned grammar purists too.



I am on the Internet a lot, and I see the way people write. I know how spell-check works, and I am very forgiving as a result. But there’s no possible way that spell-check can change “their” into “they’re.”



Well, what’s the difference? Our ancestors didn’t worry much about spelling. Well, I say, they had an excuse to write phonetically. We, having gone to Modern Schools, don’t have that excuse.



This is exactly the point made by Michael Skapinker in a recent Financial Times article. We can speak however we wish, in any circumstance. But if we want a good job, or a position of responsibility, we need to be able to speak Proper English (with grammar rules and everything) upon command. We need to be able to write memos in it, and letters, and spell correctly.



Skapinker makes a couple of other good points too: grammar is a good mental exercise, rather like logic, and helps us speak and think more clearly. This is also a good argument for learning a foreign language: it makes you think about grammar in the abstract, with rules different from those you grew up with, and allows you to switch back and forth because it’s natural to do so.



(I knew merchants in the Tunis medina who were able to cajole and haggle in six languages. I was walking through the medina with a Hawaiian friend when someone yelled “Konichi-wa!” at us, and we both laughed. “That’s because of you,” I said. “They know a little Japanese. But I bet we’ll never hear Chinese.” And just as I said it, one of the local merchants yelled out: “Ni hou ma!” And we both laughed like hell.)



Language is a tool, and grammar is a tool. Learn them, and learn to use them cleverly, and they will take you a long way.


British English and American English

british english and

A friend in England just sent me a nice little book: “British Language and Culture,” published by Lonely Planet.

I thought my knowledge of British English was moderately okay. I can read the Financial Times without a crib sheet, and even do the crossword puzzle. (The puzzle, sadly enough, often resorts to cricket terminology, which kills me, but I now know all about googlies and centuries and maiden overs, not to mention former Archbishops of Canterbury and Prime Ministers and managers of Manchester United.)

But this new book is a gold mine.

I opened the book randomly to Cockney rhyming slang. “Apples and pears” I knew from an Austin Powers movie (it means “stairs,” which rhymes with “pears”; you can say just “apples” if you’re feeling obscure). How about “Use your loaf” for “Use your head”? I assumed “loaf” was just a silly euphemism for “head,” because people’s heads were big and lumpy, like loaves of bread. But it’s rhyming slang too: “head” rhymes with “bread,” which leads us to “loaf of bread” . . . .

The book also includes Estuary English, and Zummerzet English, and Geordie English. It has a Cornish lexicon, and a Welsh lexicon, and a Scots Gaelic lexicon, not to mention a Lallans supplement.

It makes my head spin, that there are so many ways of saying the same thing.

Here’s a story from my own past:

Where I grew up – in the Pacific Northwest in the 1960s/1970s – “I have an idea” was a synonym for “I think so” or “I agree.” Example: if someone said “I think it’s going to rain today,” you could agree by saying “I have an idea.”

Then I came to New England in 1978, still using all my Northwestern idioms. I quickly stopped saying “pop,” and substituted “soda” (which seemed strange for a year or two, but which wasn’t such a big deal). I quickly stopped making fun of people who didn’t pronounce “ant” and “aunt” in exactly the same way. Ditto “ferry” and “fairy.” Ditto “Mary” and “marry” and “merry.”

And slowly I learned to speak New England English, or more specifically, Rhode Island English.

But it took me a long time to get rid of “I have an idea,” even though people reacted strangely to it. One person long ago said, wonderingly: “What? What idea do you have?”

Okay. I finally got it. No one understands “I have an idea.”

But I still think it’s a cute expression.

And isn’t it lovely that we have so many ways of expressing ourselves?

‘Bye now. I have to run up the apples and pears.


The F-bomb

f bomb jpeg

Boston was in celebration mode over the weekend, after the capture of marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. There’s been an outpouring of relief. At Saturday’s Red Sox game, there was this memorable moment:





In short: David Ortiz, “Big Papi,” spoke before the game, saying: “This is our f***ing city, and nobody gonna dictate us!”



Naturally the usual silliness broke out:



a)     Think of the children!

b)    Think of the television audience!

c)     Think of the FCC!



The head of the FCC almost immediately tweeted that he was fine with this. (He had nothing to lose; the FCC doesn’t regulate cable broadcasts.)



As for the children: if they haven’t already heard the word, they will hear it (and much worse) in due course.



Seriously: it’s so silly that people respond so violently to profanity, especially bathroom / anatomical / sexual profanity. I know it’s largely cultural, but the whole idea that the common name of a body part or a sexual function isn’t a “nice” word is just – amazing. I mean, look at me! I can’t even write “f***ing”!



Because I’m afraid I might shock or offend my readers.



I know enough about languages, however, to know that this is the way language works. Some languages (such as Tibetan) have a whole different range of vocabulary items which are used in higher-class situations.



Religious profanity is altogether a different thing. Casual swearing in Jesus’ name is common in most Catholic countries, but is often considered blasphemous in Protestant countries.



Arabic, of all the languages with which I’m familiar, is the best for swearing. Arabic-speakers combine bathroom words, sexuality, family insults, and religion in the most refreshingly creative ways.  Here’s one of the most creative (please note that I will try to translate in the least offensive way):



“May God condemn the religion of thy mother’s private parts.”



Compared to that, Big Papi seems tame, doesn’t he?


The Rhode Island accent and the Pacific Northwest accent


I came to Rhode Island thirty-four years ago, and the accent baffled me for a long time. Then I understood it. Then I tried to imitate it.

Now, decades later, I can almost manage it.

It took me years to master the pronunciation of “Worcester.” It’s WUH-stah, with a funny breathy sound in the middle.  I said WOO-stah for a long time, and everyone laughed at me.

“Sure” is easy: SHOO-wah. I say it all the time; it’s my best Rhode Island word. It baffles the Brown students who work for me; they’ve never heard anything like it, and they’re sure I’m a local.

“Cheryl” is, of course, CHEV-vil. I kid you not.

It goes without saying that I came here from the Pacific Northwest with no accent at all.

Who am I kidding? I sounded like Huckleberry Finn when I first got here. When I go back to the Northwest, I listen to my relatives talk, and I think: Are we serious? Do we really sound like that? Did I ever really sound like that?



When my brother Leopold says my name – “Loren” – it comes out sounding something like “Lawwrn.”

I speak quickly and nervously. I probably always did. But quick and nervous is appropriate for the Rhode Island accent; a lot of people here speak too quickly for their own good. It’s okay if you only get a few words here and there; most of the time, it’s enough.  I have an acquaintance here who speaks so quickly, the words seem to overlap one another.

But, even after all this time, when I go back to the Northwest, or when I talk to someone from the Northwest, the local dialect starts coming back to me.

We have “groshry stores” instead of “grocery stores.” “Washington” is “Worshington.” It’s curtains for you if you say “O-ray-gone” instead of “Orrygun.”   “Idaho” is “EYE-dee-hoe.”

After I’d been in Rhode Island for a year, I called one of my banks in Worshington State to transfer some money. After a moment on the line, the bank lady said, sounding just like Ado Annie in “Oklahoma”: “YOO SHORE SOUND FAAR AWAAY. WHERE AARE YOOU?”

And, without thinking, I bellowed back: “AH’M IN RHUDE AAHLAND!”


Or, as we say here: Foh shooah!

Learning Spanish with “Destinos”

My Spanish is what you might call “accidental.” My French and my Italian are pretty good, so I’m pretty much able to read Spanish; a lot of words look the same (though there are lots of tricks and traps between the three languages). My Peace Corps training took place in Puerto Rico, so I had some exposure to Spanish there. Also, I try to pay attention to American Spanish, on bus signs and billboards, and try to educate myself by translating them.

But I want to do better.

Back in the 1990s I saw a few episodes of a PBS educational series called “Destinos.” It was a Spanish-language course, in the form of a telenovela. Don Fernando, an old man in Mexico, learns that his first wife (whom he left for dead in Spain during the Civil War) may still be alive, and that he may have a son in Europe. He sends a Hispanic-American lawyer named Raquel Rodriguez to Europe to discover the truth. She follows the trail from Seville to Madrid to Buenos Aires to Puerto Rico, while Don Fernando’s health continues to worsen –

Well, it was mighty gripping.

It was also a very easy way to learn Spanish.

The best way to learn a language – any language – is to want to learn it. You need incentive. Lots of people want to learn foreign languages, but then discover that there’s a lot of memorization and repetition involved, and it’s not fun, and they drop the attempt. But if you’ve got incentive, it’s a doddle. If you get dropped into a non-English-speaking culture, you learn the language or else.

And, reader, “Destinos” is still out there. You can find it on DVD, and as a textbook. I recently bought both.

And it’s just as good as I remembered it.

It is very absorbing. The series keeps raising the level of difficulty almost unnoticeably from episode to episode, so you’re learning without even realizing it. Once in a while it stops to reinforce a lesson about numbers, or months, or seasons, or telling time, but that’s okay too. Also, you hear Spanish of all kinds: Raquel’s American Spanish, the Mexican Spanish of Don Fernando and his family, the elegant Castellano spoken by the characters in Seville and Madrid, the heavily-accented Spanish of Argentina and Puerto Rico.

I watch a couple of episodes every evening. !Y ya hablo espanol como el rey Juan Carlos!



Or something like that.

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