Friday, June 12, 2015

I'm Misunderstood In Several Languages

We have a weird accent in the Midwest. That is, we sound weird to other people in this country because of the way we talk.

"You don't sound like anything," my Southern friends tell me. "You sound like a TV newscaster." We Midwesterners have that non-accent accent that all the TV newscasters use so they'll sound the same throughout the country.

We don't sound Southern ("three people got killt, y'all!"), we don't have that Boston accent ("five cahs weh stolen from Hahvahd Pahk"), and despite it being in the Midwest, we're not from Chi-kaa-goh ("Tonight, Sal de Chef cooks up de perfect saa-sej-ess.")

The British do it too. If you've ever heard the BBC News on the radio, you've heard England's version of the Midwest accent. The rest of the world thinks all British people sound like that, but if you've ever heard someone from Manchester or Gloucestershire, you know British accents are as widely varied as American ones.

Even to Midwesterners, I sound a bit unusual. I don't sound like a Hoosier, despite living here nearly all my life. I don't say "warsh," I don't "go 't the store," although I do say my car "needs washed."

I get my accent from my family. My mother and father grew up in Oregon, although my dad emigrated from The Netherlands when he was nine, and apparently speaks with a slight Dutch accent. I've never actually heard it, having grown up with it my entire life, but I've been told I pronounce some of my words like he does. I say "The Nederlands" or "bett" instead of "bed."

My biggest problem — I don't know if it's a Hoosier thing or a Dutch thing (my dad does it) — is that I pronounce certain short E words with a long A sound.

The words "egg," "leg," and "Peggy" come out as "aig," "laig," and "Paigy." As in, "Oh no, Paigy spilled aig on my laig!"

It's so bad that my kids had a hard time learning to spell when they were young, because they all thought "egg" started with the letter A.

My ability to be understood gets worse when I travel to different countries.

Dutch French fries with fritessauce. Seriously, the best fries in the world!
Over the years, I've had the chance to travel to The Netherlands and Germany for work. I took German in high school, and picked up bits and pieces of Dutch during my travels. Long-time readers will even remember a trip to Frankfurt, Germany, where I paid homage to my first year German teacher by buying "ein blauer Kugelschreiber" (a blue pen) from the Faber-Castell store.

But despite my years of German study and my minutes of Dutch practice, I have a hard time communicating. Whenever I visited a restaurant or mobile French fry stand, I was never clearly understood, even though I spoke the language.

On my last trip to Germany, this very conversation happened to me four different times.

"Ich möchte ein paar Pomme frites, bitte. (I would like some French fries, please.)

"Was? (What?)

"Ein paar frites, bitte." (Some fries, please!)

"Huh?" (Huh?)

"Frites." (French fries, dammit!) Then I would point at the picture of fries to show what I wanted.

"Ah, Frites!" (Sorry, I couldn't understand you. You don't speak German very well.)

"Ja, Frites." (Yes, fries. Just like you said.)

"Huh?" (Huh?)

Then they asked, "Blah blah ketchup?" (Do you want some ketchup? You Americans always seem to love ketchup on fries, which we frankly think is disgusting, but you people will splatter it on anything.)

Then it really got bad. "Nein, Mayonnaise, bitte." (No, just mayonnaise, please.)

I even pronounced it the way they do: mai-oh-nise. Not the long I sound of "my," and not the long A sound of "may," like we say it, may-oh-naze. It was somewhere in between. I had practiced it several times, because I like the way the word sounds. Plus proper French fry mayonnaise ("Fritessaus") tastes excellent.

"Nein, mayonnaise, bitte."

"Was?" (What?)

"Mai. Oh. Nise."

"Huh?" (Huh?)

"Fritessaus." (What the hell is wrong with you?!)

"Was?" (Your pronunciation is terrible. I think I understand what you're saying, but I can't tell if you're ordering condiments or that little Timmy fell down the well.)

Defeated, I'd say it in English. "May. Oh. Naze."

"Oh, mai-oh-nise." (Ha, ha, you stupid American. I knew what you wanted the whole time. We've all been messing with you. We had a meeting about it before you arrived.)

"Danke." (I hate you all. I'm going to France.)

"Was?" (Y'all want an aig with that?)


Photo credit: Wikipedia, Creative Commons


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