Sunday, April 29

Linguistically challenged


When I was 16 I did two weeks’ work experience at the local newspaper, and since my uncle was a journalist there I was entrusted to write a piece on some kindergarten children who’d built a fort out of milk cartons. That was the beginning of my writing career. I later got a part-time job to fit around my school work, and ended up with my very own weekly column, writing articles on issues interesting to young people in small-town Sweden (read: interesting to me).

I knew almost from the start that I didn’t want to be a journalist, it always made me feel uncomfortable to interview people who really didn’t want to be interviewed. But I loved the writing process; coming up with an idea, doing the research, playing around with words... it was a very satisfying process. And it still is, at least to some degree. But as I have complained about before I often feel stuck in no-man's land without a language of my own.

Swedish is in many ways lost to me, at least its nuances; the very details that make a language rich and interesting. And English, well I don't believe I will ever truly grasp it in the way I would like, and I'm the first to admit that perhaps it's because I'm just too lazy. But let's face it, it's not always a very friendly or accommodating language. Take the spelling and subsequent ridiculous pronunciations of many words for instance. I feel like an idiot half the time just opening my mouth.

Take taciturn, I never remember whether the -c- is soft or hard. And what about ergot? Am I supposed to pronounce the -t- at the end or not? Segue anyone? And then there is victual, one of the worst offenders in my book.

OK, so I'm not a native speaker, but I suspect that even those of you whose first language is English must struggle at times. So, I'm going to hand it over to you. Are there words you find yourself avoiding? Or do you have any memories of making a verbal gaff in a particularly embarrassing situation? Or for those of you who are in a similar situation to me, i.e. living in another country, speaking another language; what are your stories?

16 comments:

sognatrice said...

I'm a native English speaker, and if it makes you feel any better, I really don't use those words often enough in conversation for their pronunciation to make a difference ;)

Gaffes in Italian? Where do I begin? There are so many traps here for us, but the one I love/hate most is the word "scopare" which can either mean to sweep (like with a broom) or, um, a slang term for making love. And so I don't use EVER, just to be on the safe side ;)

sognatrice said...

That should be "don't use it EVER..." Hate typos ;)

Judith in Umbria said...

Like Sognatrice, I just try to avoid being really filthy or stupid.

The scopare thing is solved by always saying fare la scopa, use the broom. I learned that from the muratore who taught me the other meaning so I wouldn't shock his mother.

And still I would walk out of the garden and tell the neighbors I was sexually aroused. Did that for 2 years before being told what's what.

These are the reasons I don't use slang in English nor in Italian. I covered myself in shame being a smart mouth and using pilot slang, which terms I used also meant taking on a customer in the parlance of a hooker.

It's way too easy to get it wrong and at best you are dating yourself. Anybody want to "sock it to me?"

Bearette24 said...

I used to say "vixinity" instead of "vicinity"...embarrassing!

Spelling is a strong point of mine (I was in a national spelling bee when I was thirteen, which was fun, though I was crushed when I was eliminated). Pronunciation...not so strong!

I actually love the word "segue", though it irritates me when people here spell it "segway"; I also love weird words like "bailiwick."

Vanessa said...

I'm a native English speak and fluent in Spanish.
Over the years, a lot of my mishaps may have seemed minor as they only involve getting ONE LETTER wrong. Trouble is ONE LETTER can make a huge difference in Spanish... well, in any language, I guess. Take these two examples:
-pollo vs. polla (chicken vs. slang for penis... yes I walked into a butcher's shop and asked for one once. I swear).
-trastero vs. trasero (storeroom vs. backside... yes I once told a friend to stick her furniture up her proverbial arse).
Funny tidbits aside, after 13 years living in Spain with very little contact with other native speakers, for a while I felt that my English was beginning to fail me (or at least not developing at the rate it should) and at times I even felt more comfortable expressing myself in my supposedly second language, Spanish. Now that I'm back in English-speaking Ireland, I suppose the opposite is true. It's amazing how fast our linguistic knobs can be twisted back and forth!!!
Vx

Kamsin said...

I find my spelling which used to be quite good is now pretty awful. Having spent about 5 years in total overseas and teaching English to mainly low level learners there were some words I just didn't use, and then there were some new words which crept into the language when I was away. I definitely found my English deteriorated living abroad and although I've got most of it back now, I'm sure my vocabulary isn't at the level it was when I was an undergrad. Language really does have to be used to be retained, and English is quite word heavy and is full of irregularities.

Sharon said...

A cousin from Sicily visited/lived with us for a year when we were still living in the USA. He loved McDonald's. After taking him there a few to many times, we told him he was on his own. He really liked the Happy Meal set up. He told us that when he was there he couldn't remember to say Happy Meal so he did the best he could and asked for that meal in the *suitcase*. I have had those experiences of not finding the right word and getting a few smiles. I wanted to buy slippers and asked for scarpe notte. That translates night shoes. OK..so once I wanted to buy some charcoal to make a barbecue fire and asked *dove inferno*??? I wanted to say something to make a fire. Hahahaha..I asked where is hell???

KatieBelle said...

I'm a native English speaker and there are actually quite a few words I totally avoid saying because I just hate the way they sound and the way they roll off my tongue. Some examples: deodorant, diaper, priority...ugh. They make me cringe! Isn't it funny that simple words can do that?

Poppy Fields said...

I was invited for a weekend, with my fiancé, to the Brittany home of one of my first french friends. Her father was a distinguished doctor and local politician. A strict practicing Catholic family, very proper people. I had only been in France six months and was barely speaking the language. Somehow at the dinner table, in my conversation I wanted to use the word anomaly. Well I said it, and everybody froze, for just a microsecond and looked from me to my boyfriend, before they started laughing. Apparently I had pronouced the word badly and in such a way that in french I said that I had "un homme au lit"...a man in my bed, instead of anomaly.

Gypsy Purple said...

I SO relate...living in South Africa...my first language is Afrikaans....English is our operating language.....but we have 11 official languages...only in South Africa

BlueJude said...

I LOVE words! And I love when my 4 year old makes up his own. He calls eyebrows "dinky lines"! Sorry I just find that too funny. And how clever....don't avoid a word- make up your own and have fun!!

Vanessa said...

Me again, because I had to say: Wow! That is one beautiful banner, girl! I love it :)
Vx

Lacithecat said...

Gosh, as a dyslexic - there are so many words that I struggle with in printed form. Even if I know that words, they don't have any such linkages when trying to read them.

I can't though say 'specific' ... it comes out like sfefic. Don't know why.

But I learned German and Hungarian through humourous gaffes. In Hungarian, the word 'bus' sounds like shit and fass means dick. Isn't that just lovely, talk about putting the foot in MY mouth.

Ah and I asked my German host brother for sex once quite loudly (well I wanted to ask for 6 cards as we were playing rummy). I still can't live that one down.

Cathy said...

The worst was something my husband once said; we were at a dinner party and he meant to say that something about the calamari was off; rather than saying that the tentacles were rather large; he said that the testicles were large; all conversation came to an abrupt halt; this really doesn't have much to do with your psot, though, does it...
Cathy in Canada...

Bearette24 said...

Cathy...that was funny!

Edvard Moonke said...

hmmm.... far too complex to go into in a short comment...

I'd love to discuss it with you though... a conversation for the pub, me thinks.