Slang in a Second Language

I’d like to say I’m fluent in Spanish. I guess it depends on how you define fluent. I can make myself understood. I can usually understand. I couldn’t explain the inner workings of a jet engine to you, but I couldn’t do that in English, either. I’m missing a lot of specialized vocabulary. I would struggle with legal jargon, for example. Over the years, I have gotten lazy and relied on Google Translate a bit more than I probably should. But, yeah, I can read books and watch movies and chit chat, for the most part.

But one thing I have always studiously avoided was learning slang. First of all, there are a lot of Spanish speaking countries out there, and each has its own slang. Second, slang, by it’s very definition, is time sensitive, and there’s nothing cheesier than someone using slang that’s outmoded, Daddy-o. I have no access to that cultural calendar that seems so instinctual in one’s first language, at least if you’re in with the in crowd.

Also, a lot of slang is based on cultural references that I’m not privy to. And slang often has its place in certain groups, but not in others. For example, there are things you’d say to your friends that you’d never say to grandma. Determining the appropriate audience for slang is a challenge in English. I doubt I’d be able to cope in a second language.

So my advice to anyone learning a second language is to avoid slang at all costs. It’s just too risky. You could offend someone without intending to. You may want to look cool, but you have an even better chance of looking like a fool. It never hurts to proceed with caution.

dictionary-slang
I bet this was out of date even before it got published.

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What’s Your Orientation?

Don’t get excited. I’m not asking you about your sexual orientation. Not only is that none of my business, but I really couldn’t care less. You be you.

No, I’m talking about… what should I call it? Your compass orientation. How you visualize yourself in the world.

The reason I’m thinking about this is because my husband and I have a difference of opinion as to how a GPS should be set up. He likes his maps pointing ever northward, regardless of which direction he is going. I, on the other hand, greatly prefer to have my maps move with me as I move. I’m way too dyslexic to have to figure out if that turn is a left or a right based on where the sun is sitting in the sky. Show me, for heaven’s sake, which way to turn from where I’m facing right this minute. Otherwise I’m completely lost.

Recently I heard a story on NPR about how certain languages are compass oriented, and others, like English, are not. We describe things as being to our left or right, or in front of us or behind us. But it seems that some languages describe things as being to the North, South, East, or West. It doesn’t matter which way that person is facing when they have their discussion. They say, “You left your keys on the table to the north of you.” If plopped down in that culture, it would take me an awfully long time to find my keys. But I’m sure that if you’re born into it, that’s the norm.

The way I imagine it is that some people’s consciousness is inside their head, looking out of their eyes. That’s how I see the world. It’s faced in whatever direction I am faced in. But other people must have their consciousness floating slightly above themselves, and always oriented to the compass, as their body turns beneath them. I can’t relate to that at all. Not at all.

I wonder which is more common. What’s your orientation?

Vintage COmpass by hourglassthorne on DeviantArt

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Sápmi

I saw that word for the first time in my life at the Nordic Museum here in Seattle. And there was a beautiful flag underneath. It was in a display, right next to similar displays for Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Iceland and Finland. Was this a country I never heard of? How is that even possible?

Upon further investigation, I learned that Sápmi is the land of the Sami people, and it stretches over vast swaths of Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Russia. There may be as many as 135,000 Sami people roaming around out there. And they have been around since prehistoric times, inhabiting the area for at least 5,000 years. Again, how had I never heard of them?

Turns out I have. But in elementary school I was taught that they are called Laplanders, or Lapps. Apparently these are actually derogatory terms.

I was taught that they herded reindeer. That fascinated me. But currently only 10 percent of them are doing this, even though, in some regions, they are the only people allowed to do so. They also herd sheep, and are known for fishing and fur trapping as well.

Over the years, they have suffered the same indignities as other indigenous people. Land encroachment. Suppression of their language and culture. Forced relocation and assimilation. Sterilization (which went on until 1975). Children taken far away to missionary schools. The fact that they have their own parliaments, university, anthem and flag tells you much about their ability to resist such outrages.

The Sami people have contributed much to science, exploration, literature, art, music, politics and sports. Theirs is a vibrant culture. Sadly, due to the suppression of their many languages, all their languages are considered in danger of dying out, and that usually is a death knell for a culture. But I genuinely believe that the more of us that learn about and celebrate these fascinating people, the more likely that their culture will continue to survive for future generations.

Don’t you just love learning something new?

Sápmi
The Flag of Sápmi

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Our Own Private Crop Circles

Dreams. I’ve always considered them messages from my subconscious. Which makes it all the more frustrating when I don’t understand them.

A friend of mine calls them our own private crop circles. Like those beautiful and mysterious creations (whether you believe they’re man made or otherwise), we know these dreams are trying to tell us something, but what? Good question.

I’ve always kind of assumed that my subconscious knows more about what’s going on with me than I do. But if that’s really true, why can’t it enunciate, at the very least? Quit mumbling gibberish.

Why can’t it say, “Yo, you are stressed out about xyz, and I have no intention of letting you sleep peacefully until you deal with it.” I’m much more functional when my marching orders are clear.

Instead, what does it give me? Dreams about being chased by bats or  giraffes walking on water.

We share the same head. You’d think we’d speak the same language.

http _stobblehouse.com_photo_cropcircles_silburyhill2005

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Why Do Cities in India Change Their Names?

It’s got to be a royal pain in the behind to change the name of an entire city. Signs must be replaced. Government departments must be renamed. Not to mention all the business cards, letterhead, newspaper mastheads, maps… It must cost a fortune. And it’s confusing for those of us who can’t seem to keep up.

This name change thing happens in India quite a bit. Bombay is now Mumbai. Calcutta is now Kolkata. Benares is also Varanasi. Madras is Chennai.

It must be awfully strange to go to sleep in one city and wake up in another. Even stranger than getting married and suddenly having a new last name, or having to write a new year on things for the first couple weeks of January.

There are several reasons why name changes happen in India. In a lot of cases (Mumbai, for example), they are simply improving the spelling of a city whose name never really changed for the native people. Bombay is just an anglicized version of what the Brits heard the locals say. There’s a lot of arrogance surrounding colonialization, but the “we know better than you do what this place is called” takes the cake, as far as I’m concerned. (But then, not nearly enough American place names reflect the wishes of the Native Americans, so who are we to criticize?)

Adding another layer of complexity to the situation, there are 22 official languages in India, and 1652 spoken languages. Needless to say, all these people have different ways of pronouncing things, and different senses of history for each area.

From a political and religious standpoint, there’s also some pressure to change Islamic and Christian city names to their Hindu counterparts, as Hinduism comprises almost 80 percent of the population of India.

The thing I find most interesting is that a city’s name may “officially” change, but that does not necessarily mean that the locals or the press or the international community will adhere to that change. In some cases, it’s business as usual. Apparently it’s only a big deal if you make it one. Which makes me think of that old saying: “Wherever you go, there you are.”

Colonial India
The arrogant, and now largely inaccurate, colonial map of India.

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The Church of the Random Word Generator

Here’s why I take exception to the implication that any multi-language translation of an ancient text is the exact and perfect word of its author: Have you ever used Google Translate? Seriously, most old texts that are still studied today have been through so many idioms that the very idea that they bear even a passing resemblance to the original intent is laughable, at best. And even if you go to the original documents, in some notable cases, they were written 40 years or more after the events in question took place. Could you accurately describe something that happened 40 years ago? I couldn’t.

In addition, ancient scripts were written in the context of the times, and now we’re attempting to interpret these messages through our modern lens. That’s like dropping a modern teenager into the year 1530 and expecting that kid to fit right in. Whatever, as they say. Good luck with that.

Now, you also have to realize that many of the texts that came down to us came without spaces between words, or even vowels and punctuation, and you can see where the finished version that we currently rely on is a little sketchy in terms of accuracy and original intent. So maybe those words were separated rather, um, randomly.

I’m not bashing your religion. I’m just saying that rigidity is not the way to go. Add common sense into the mix. Throw in a dash of critical thinking. Remember that historical context is everything. Then you can be as spiritual as you want. Amen.

But thinking about all those translations and all the loss of integrity that has crept in over the years as various people added, deleted, and changed things, has made me think of my old friend, the Random Word Generator. What if religious texts got so altered over time that the words seemed random, and we were forced to interpret that mess?

I decided to do a little thought experiment. I pulled up a fairly standard version of The Lord’s Prayer (which is the only religious thing I know by heart), and I determined that it was 71 words long. Then I asked the Random Word Generator to spit out 71 words. Whoa, Nelly. That makes for one strange religion.

For added fun, I broke up our random words as if they were the Lord’s Prayer, giving it the same word count in the stanzas, and the same punctuation as this English version, and wound up with this:

The Lord’s Prayer (as per the Random Word Generator)

Record Pause, bronze stuff pottery shoot,

route drown attitude Photocopy,

compose write hallway,

curriculum bold cultivate racism,

worm harass death rotate staff crown protest.

Ice campaign elect snack adult conservation strict.

Roll traffic self inside license,

age convince limit crosswalk

witch wrong jump master.

Charm building treat electron mirror winner,

glare recession gold competence wrestle.

Eat concentration grain hurt bang,

wing ensure miracle, pool hen train,

Museum victory carry pity. President.

If I tried hard enough, I’m sure I could find some great advice in there. It might even alter the way I live my life. There does seem to be a certain level of violence implied as well. (That’s something that most world religions can’t seem to avoid.) It also shows hints of politics, a little bit of economic socialism, and it has me thinking that maybe children shouldn’t be able to get drivers’ licenses at the tender age of sixteen.

Hmm…

Heiroglyphics

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The First Word

While relaxing on my back porch the other day, with my dog in my lap and the sun in my eyes, I allowed my mind to drift in lazy spirals. Talk about the epitome of privilege. Doing nothing. If this were the 1800’s, I’d be out there chopping wood for the winter. Anyway.

I have always been fascinated with firsts. I once wrote a post entitled, Who Was the First Person to Think Lobster Would be Good to Eat(Whomever it was, bless him or her.)

Following that tangent, it occurred to me that someone had to be the first person to utter a word. Who was it? And what distinguishes a word from a grunt? For my purposes, let’s define a word as a name for something or someone or a concept. (I know that’s overly simplistic, but hey, it works for me as I bask in the sun.)

So, did some adult suddenly realize there was value in being able to name things, or was a baby’s first word the first word? If it was a baby, the word was probably some form of Ma, as it usually is. Ma is kind of the sound you make when enjoying mother’s milk. Ma is the source of food, after all, and food is critical to survival.  So that’s a possibility.

But what if the first word came from an adult? What would it be? What could have been so important that it would cause one to bridge that societal gap? Perhaps some simplistic form of “Saber Toothed Tiger.” Or simply, “Run!”

Whatever the word was, I wonder if its speaker realized that this was a huge deal. By making that sound he or she was destined to change the world. Even this humble blog wouldn’t have been possible without that person.

Given our inherent selfishness, especially when faced with survival, the word could have been “mine,” or “give”. I doubt it would have been anything as complex as “love”, because how could you possibly be sure that love meant the same thing to you as it does to the next person?

Hmmm… maybe it was love, after all.

1_neanderthal

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Buying in to Gender Violence Phraseology

Wow. I consider myself a feminist, and I’m proud of that. But clearly I have a shocking amount to learn. Recently, a friend showed me this article from Middlebury Magazine, entitled “The Language of Gender Violence”, and it blew me away. I strongly encourage you to read it.

It was discussing women’s issues such as sexual violence and harassment and domestic violence. Cue the record scratch sound effect. Back up. Read that sentence again. It doesn’t seem particularly controversial, does it? But now look at the phrase “women’s issues”. Why are these women’s issues? Because they happen to women? Shouldn’t they be society’s issues? Why do men get a “get out of jail free” card when it comes to this, particularly when they are generally the perpetrators of this violence?

I never thought of that. It never even crossed my mind. By using the language we use, we are perpetuating societal attitudes.

The article went on to discuss the passive voice. It said, “We talk about how many women were raped last year, not about how many men raped women. We talk about how many girls in a school district were harassed last year, not about how many boys harassed girls. We talk about how many teenage girls in the state of Vermont got pregnant last year, rather than how many men and boys impregnated teenage girls.”

By using the passive voice, we take men and boys out of the equation entirely. These issues become a problem for women, and men aren’t even the focus anymore. Pretty sneaky. Pretty insidious.

I have no doubt fallen into this verbal trap at least a million times in my life, and I didn’t even realize what I was doing. It never dawned on me that I was playing along. I’m horrified. And it is making me look at the world from a completely different angle.

Food for thought.

gender violence
A truly admirable sentiment. But why not say, “Men against violent men?”

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In Praise of the Codex Seraphinianus

The Codex Seraphinianus, created by Luigi Serafini and published in 1981, could very well be the panacea for all the major struggles in my life. It’s a manuscript written in a strange, made up language with an even stranger alphabet, and what accompanies it are some of the most disturbing and/or delightful illustrations you will ever see. I wish I could afford a copy of this fascinating publication. I’m sure I’d spend half my waking life lost in the weird world it describes.

The reason this book appeals to me so much is that I seem to spend a lot of time trying really hard to make sense out of the nonsensical. I want everything to be explainable. I want there to be answers to all my questions. I am desperate to have all things fit into neat little boxes.

This book challenges that belief system, and flies in the face of any attempt to categorize things as black or white, right or wrong, fact or fiction. This book lives in the gray areas that we all would prefer to avoid. It defies logic. Or, rather, it invents a logic of its own, one that appeals greatly to the Daliesque world in which our subconscious resides.

The strangest thing about this codex is that the more you look at it, the more it seems to add up. It almost appears to hypnotize you. It causes you to suspend your disbelief to such a degree that you begin to flirt with the idea that you’re losing your mind. But only for a second. Or two.

If anyone out there is wondering what to get me for Christmas, now you know.

Codex

Language: The Canary in the Coalmine

One of the very first blog entries I ever wrote, back in December of 2012, was Express Yourself While You Can. In it I posited the theory that languages are the keepers of culture. I know I behave differently when I’m speaking Spanish, and we often attribute different traits, rightly or wrongly, to people who speak certain languages. I also discussed how languages are dying every day.

Well, it seems that that blog entry was kind of prescient, because according to this story in PRI (Public Radio International), a study by the World Wildlife Fund has determined that language has a very close link to biodiversity as well. It makes perfect sense. The same things that kill off ecosystems also kill off languages. Things such as overpopulation and deforestation not only destroy the environment, but they drive away small pockets of people with unique idioms, scattering them to the four winds.

The study goes on to say that just like with animals, once a language dies, you can’t get it back. And that’s more of a tragedy than you may realize, because these languages often include very specific knowledge about local ecosystems. These people, who have lived in the area for centuries, speaking in their unique ways, know more about the local plants and animals than we ever will.

Scientists say that the statistics for the death of ecosystems and those of the death of languages have a great many parallels indeed. I know that if I never spoke Spanish again, a very outgoing, bubbly, flirty and confident part of me would wither and die. Tragedy upon tragedy…

Peace