Wednesday, November 29, 2006

misadventures of a cunning linguist

damn, it's a good thing I got a knack for languages, because every day is an exercise in subcultural translation.

For example, I was chatting on IM with Winter:

Me: Hi, what's up?
Winter: Erm...not sure how to respond to that, really.

Turns out they don't use the phrase "what's up" in Britain (and here's where I quote Oscar Wilde's quip about two countries separated by a common language). And in explaining it I realized it's a more complex phrase than I imagined. It can mean "how are you," "what's going on," "what are you doing," "what's the problem," or just "hi." And just with vocabulary in general, even though we're both very well read, we've decided that there needs to be an American-British dictionary.

And my parents have taken to refering to Winter as my Friend. As in, "So, when's your Friend coming to visit?" You can just hear the capital F. I find it amusing, like Winter and I are some sort of notorious duo, like Thelma and Louise. Oh, there's Andygrrl and her Friend, watch out for them! (They can't pronounce her name either, it's Welsh, I find it lovely and elegant but it's a bit much for my midwestern parents). It must be a generational thing, because I've told them she's my girlfriend.

And that's another one that always trips me up, deciphering the straight woman's girlfriend from the dyke's Girlfriend. I find it odd that straight women would refer to friends that way, as if "friend" is inherently male and they have to specify the sex; but you would never hear someone refer to their "female friend." Being in a relationship does make it easier to casually out myself in conversation...except when they don't get it, and I have to go, "No, no, my Girlfriend." Don't even get me started on Brits and their ubiquitous use of the word "partner," for straights and gays alike. We don't have any good words to describe these intimate people in our lives, and I'm not sure why that is. Maybe our cultural skittishness around sex and emotion (seriously, only one word for "love"? And getting a clear definition for sex that's not hetero missionary position is an adventure in itself).

I remember one of my first literary theory classes, the professor brought in a boombox and played the Police's "De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da," to illustrate the principles of Deconstruction theory, which essentially says that all language ultimately fails and hinders true communication. Word. (Boy, try explaining that one to someone who doesn't speak English.)

And you don't even want to know how many spelling errors I've had to correct in this one. My head hurts.


At 7:37 AM, Blogger Winter said...

Well, in the UK if you say "Something's up" with someone, you mean something's wrong i.e. "What's up with her?" So, when you say "What's up" all I can think to say is "Er, nothing, I'm ok." Here we say "How are you?" to which everyone replies "I'm fine" even when they're patently not.

But it's rather amazing just how many linguistic and cultural differences there are!

I am so bowled over by the fact that your mum is asking after me in the first place that I'm more than willing to overlook euphemisms name alterations -- hell, there are a lot of things she could be calling me which are worse than "Friend."

My parents are calling you my "Friend" too. In fact, it might even be Friend.

At 12:08 PM, Blogger stumptown dreamer said...

So great that you two are doing the trans-atlantic, cross cultural thing. Prudent Poet and I, fortunate to live in the same place, come up with similar cultural/language issues all the time. (Me:UK, she:USA) Sometimes it is lonely, mostly it is an education.
Good luck with the parents, and the visits when they happen.

At 1:18 PM, Blogger reasonably prudent poet said...

ditto to what my sweet little stumpy just wrote.

in addition, i'd like to weigh in on the straight girl's girlfriend situation. i don't think straight girls use the term "girlfriend" just to designate the sex of their friend. i think a straight "girlfriend" is a term of endearment that indicates a closeness not necesarilly shared w/ other female friends. (similar to but less exclusive than a best friend.) i think it's an example of how women have intimacies w/ each other that aren't necesarilly sexual and that aren't reflected by their straight male counterparts. (ever heard any straight male acquaintance talk about meeting up with his boyfriends for a game of touch football? yeah, me neither.) it's also a sometimes awkward linguistic overlap, but what are you gonna do?

At 6:35 AM, Blogger HB said...

In Norwegian the word for both girlfriend and boyfriend is "kjæreste". It means "dearest" I think. It also means that in conversation with people you don't know very well, or with new people, it's easier to stay in the closet. Like:

"What are you doing this weekend?"
"My dearest and I are going to Oslo, to visit some friends."

No gender revealed. So I try to work in the word "she" or my girlfriends name, but even then people sometimes actually don't get it, and still assumes I'm with a man. You hear what you expect to hear, I guess.

But at least no girlfriend (kjæreste) vs girl friend (venninne) trouble in Norwegian:-)


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