Monday, July 12, 2010

That's me in the corner

Through happy chance, I've spoken to four of our Seattle friends in the last week. The time difference is a total bugger to negotiate, so it was particularly lovely to get to manage it so often.
The close proximity of the calls made me realise something, though, that I might not have noticed over a more separated period. I don't know how to speak American any more. The once-learned automatic cadences and re-accenting ('gar-arshhh' rather than 'garridge' for 'garage', 'fosset' rather than 'fawcet' for 'faucet' - and come to that, 'faucet' rather than 'tap') are gradually slipping away under first Irish and now British reassertion of dominance. Maybe I was always this inarticulate in the US and I've just sugar-coated my memories the way time allows, but I found myself tripping up on the absolute daftest of things; what the Americans say for 'ring road' ('arterial', I think; but I haven't looked it up so God only knows); whether it's a two-by-four or a four-by-two (and it's certainly not a 4X4, which is an SUV and thus something else altogether). It felt a bit like losing my religion. How could I not know how to speak anymore, for Christ's sake?

I've always been astonished by how little room in my brain there seems to be for vocabulary, especially for someone who loves talking so much. I learned Spanish for six months, and that was all it took for my 13 years of German (including two years living auf deutsch, um Gottes Willen) to be supplanted by those sneaky sibilant 's's and perkily phonetic phrases.

The exception to this (and why yes, I have spent a long time thinking about this; why do you ask?) is for words that I particularly attach to a given situation. 'Carafe' in French, because all wine is in jugs so you're forever asking for jugs. 'Strassenbahn' (or worse, the colloquial 'Binnen') for tram in we-will-rule-everything-on-little-electric-trains Germany. 'Remolque' in Spanish, mostly because I learned Spanish with Ol (yeah, this is what we did for fun. I know.) and the phrase 'Tienes uno remolque?' ('do you have a tow truck?') struck as the most ridiculously un-useful phrase ever from car-less central London. The 'learned it here first' rule also holds good for English, it seems; I was able to chat diapers and strollers with lovely Kim without the need of a translator.

Anyway, I hadn't thought about one of our forms of English drowning out the others. I'd assumed, if I considered it at all, that we'd switch effortlessly from one to the other the way we drive on the left or the right (or the middle, in Ireland, where the roads are so tiny and twisty) according to cultural dictat. But no. It would appear that even the mother tongue is situational.

No comments: