Sunday, May 28, 2006

War of the Words

Americans and Britons do not speak the same English. Even within Britain there is wide variation, and despite the fact that it is a small country, Scotland embraces many dialects based on regional history. In the Highlands, there are some Gaelic speakers. Gaelic has now become the second official language. One woman took umbrage at the announcement because she thought her second language was Scot's English, which had now been demoted to a third and unofficial place. Caithness, this corner of northeast Scotland, has a long history of viking visits and many of the place names are remnants of Old Norse, which was spoken on some of the islands until recent times.

So my experience with BBC programs on PBS, Monty Python routines, Beatles songs and novels by Dickens and Jane Austen had not prepared me well for this part of Britain with its rich linguistic soup. I did better with face to face conversations than telephone ones. Perhaps face to face gave me more context clues or reminded the speakers that they needed to speak carefully. At any rate, for the first few months, I listened hard and understood about half of what I heard.

Of course it is not just the words or the accent, but the way conversations are framed is also different. Stories here are often a cross between Homeric bardic language and Ring Lardner short story narrative. In the first instance, any tale begins with a recital of the ancestors of all the characters. The main thread, or so it seemed to me, is then embedded in description of day to day details which may lead to discussions of land, barley, grass, cattle, or weather. Since I did not know any of the connections, even when I cracked the code of the structure, I was still lost.

As with so many elements of the transition, this invisible corner was turned before I realized it. David came to the door and asked for a torch. I gave him the one nearest the door and turned down the hall to the office.
Morris asked, "Who was that?"
"David. He asked for a torch, so I gave him a flashlight."
Morris was not sure whether to laugh or not--I was sometimes more sensitive than good natured during the transition, but he could not suppress a smile.

I went on some time in this semi-permeable fashion of language making as I began to understand more and more of the words around me. But then I began to notice the result of an internal debate: sometimes the words would roll around in my head like the numbers in a bingo tumbler while my tongue waited impatiently for the winner. When I confided this problem to a visiting friend from the States, she assured me that this would pass and then I would automatically adjust to the language around me. I believe her because she is wise and knows about such things, but it is odd now to be on the other side of situations I have observed. When I asked my Indian friends in the US how they knew which dialect of the many they chose to use when speaking to a friend or family member, they always replied, "You just know."

So now the next time I go back to the States I will have to see if American words come back to me. It is hard to imagine a rich, red juicy Indiana tomato being called a "to MAH to." Or a drookit Scottish rain as a downpour. My daughter has suggested replacing the words that make no sense such as "boot" for the trunk of a car with more sensible ones such as "auto butt."

In the meantime, I am taking the Humpty Dumpty approach and making up words. After one too many days of rain up here, I exclaimed, "I am sick to death of these drookit draps of dribble falling on me!" It may not have advanced linguistic knowledge, but it did feel good and no one would have missed my meaning.


At 7:56 AM, Blogger Sir James E. Watkins said...

interesting blog.

At 6:00 PM, Anonymous Your Sis said...

I enjoy reading your blog so much,I forget to check my e-mail cause It makes me feel closer to you.

At 7:53 PM, Blogger ZACL said...

Some people may like to publicise that Gaelic is the official second language of Scotland - in my considered opion it most definitely is not. There is a drive to make it so. Gaelic may be spoken in the Western Isles and in some parts of the West coast areas but that is hardly a major part of the population. There are more sheep than people in most of those places. Gaelic was never spoken in the whole of Scotland. In the central belt there was another wider spoken tongue. Caithness has its various dialects and local forms of speech.

In the North East, Aberdeenshire, it is The Doric that is spoken and the population there, certainly gave hell to one company that put up dualling signeage that did not give due credence and respect to their own tongue. The company concerned displayed, to their grief, English/Gaelic and greatly offended local sensitivities.

Not all of Scotland accepts dual road signs either, much of the northern Highlands have certainly argued against them.

Local traditions and languages must be respected and not drowned out by one vocal group who thinks theirs is the only choice.

At 7:56 PM, Blogger ZACL said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

At 9:05 PM, Blogger landgirl said...

Thanks! It has been more of a pleasure than I realized sharing stories with people and hearing their reactions.

At 12:43 PM, Blogger landgirl said...

Thanks, sis, for "listening."

At 12:47 PM, Blogger landgirl said...

zacl, you put your finger on the pulse of the language issue that I glossed over. As such a recent incomer,I am trying to spend more time observing than commenting but I can't help but notice the irony of translating a Norse name from its English compromise into a Gaelic name that never existed. I'll go out on a limb and suggest the same mentality that made the BBC's weather map,which tried to make the whole of Scotland invisible, also came up with the idea of Gaelic on everything.

At 8:39 PM, Blogger ZACL said...

What a brilliant perception - I hope the BBC see your comment on their dreadful weather map. As you know, they have already had to change the angle of the horrid display to make the UK look united...


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