Mind your Language

caedmonIt was my husband’s birthday this weekend and we had the best of all celebrations.
Time to ourselves.

We closed the gates to the drive and settled down to undisturbed peace.

Yes, of course we had to collect eggs, let out the chickens and ducks, change their water, put in fresh feed and then bang them up again in the evening.

Yes, we had to chop banana stems and fodder grass for the sheep and cattle and not get knocked over in the stampede for the bananas as we shut them in for the night.

Yes, we had to give the dogs their wash and deflea session.

But we did not have to speak to anyone else.
We did not have to put ourselves into the mindset of another language or culture.
We could think and speak entirely as we pleased.
All the time.

And what did we find?

For the most part we spoke to each other in English….but when we were talking about local stuff it was surprising how much Spanish we used…I can only imagine because the source of our information, whether oral or written, had been expressed in Spanish which had come, in its turn, to define the mode of discussion.

It would not have ocurred to us that the lunacy of a situation in which the leader of H.M.’s government is a foul mouthed coke head could be discussed in any language other than English, but it was interesting to find that the same process led to discussion of the character of the ex Mayor of San Jose and Presidential candidate using any number of Spanish phrases.

I would not say that it was perfect Spanish, either in use of grammar or pronunciation, but it was the Spanish that came to us spontaneously.

I enjoy the proper use of language, but not to the point of pedantry.
Language lives, evolves; it has to do so to be able to reflect the experience of its users.
I do not understand texting ….but it is an offshoot which has developed to enable those with more time than sense to communicate with each other and as such is no less legitimate than any professional jargon – which is double dutch to anyone outside the charmed circle.

I would never make a translator.
I see languages in their own compartments: products of their own cultures and dependent on those cultures for their meaning.
I can enter those compartments; enjoy the contents, but I can’t bridge the compartments to translate – it is too easy to be clumsy and swift yet takes forever to translate one context to another.

I would be quite capable of the translation classic..the English phrase ‘out of sight, out of mind’ translated into Russian and then retranslated to English as……. ‘absent idiot’.
But on the positive side, as a translator I could block the work of the European Union for years…..
Any offers?

Expat blogs can be a sort of translation…..illustrating one culture in the light of another in the person of the blogger…and there are many fine ones in the blogosphere.
There are also the others….

Those on Costa Rica which would lead the unwary to believe that the country is populated solely by wild birds and monkeys…like the tropical house at Kew Gardens with the lid off.
Or those which seek to persuade others that Costa Ricans are simple, happy folk, whose only concern is to help the gringo – reminiscent of slide shows of missionary activity in darkest Africa.
Or those that want to sell you overpriced property. ‘Trust me, I’m a gringo!’

There aren’t so many of the rose tinted blogs about life in France these days – if you discount the American girls in Paris rotting their teeth on macaroons – as reality in the shape of taxes eats into the dream world of pink wine and baguettes.
But, by golly, there are still a few blind mouths about….

Those who have a holiday home there and spend their time visiting other expats with holiday homes and eating in restaurants: any criticism of France, any comment on the realities admitted to by anyone French, and they fly up like a fighting cock.
‘Touche pas au grisbi!’ Don’t go for their bundle of golden dreams.

And then there are the pedants: wedded to a certain idea of France (pretty damn far from that of de Gaulle) based on its literature, architecture and gastronomy as they have learned to appreciate them in their home countries. So far gone are they that some of them would even eat an andouillette.
They ‘know’ France…but they don’t know their neighbours.

I was reading of the death of a film director, Georges Lautner, and one of his films came immediately to mind.
Les Tontons Flinguers. A take off of gangster films.
Not so much for his direction, but for the dialogue written by Michel Audiard – a man who had an ear for France.

One of his characters says
‘Les cons, ça ose tout! C’est même à ça qu’on les reconnaît.’
Pratwits…they are capable of anything. That’s how you know them for what they are.

The pedant would soon tell you that is not French…not proper French. ‘Les cons’ is plural and ‘ca’ is singular…
What the pedant can’t tell you is why audiences – French audiences – rolled about.
If you want to connect with old France…find a Youtube download with subtitles to make things easier…and enjoy.
The scene where the assembled crooks sample the products of the illicit still is a classic.

Audiard was also responsible for the dialogue in another of my favourites…but I don’t think that it is subtitled…
‘Les Vieux de la Vieille’ where a trio of First World War veterans decide they are better off in an old peoples’ home than in their own – until they meet matron.
I saw the last of the world that that film depicted….in all its hardship and obstinacy…when I was first in France.
But then…I knew my neighbours.

I’ll let the pedants tell you how to pronounce ‘crapule’ while I leave you with a classic from Georges Brassens

‘Quand on est con, on est con.’
You can be an old ‘con’ you can be a young ‘con’…but you’re still a ‘con’.

You can’t leave them alone a minute….

kjcardsandthings.com
kjcardsandthings.com

I have been – mostly – confined to bed for the last few days which has left The Men, husband and Danilo, to their own devices and, according to them, rushed off their feet and exhausted.

Yes, well…..

So I was surprised to find them huddled in front of the computer this afternoon.
It was clear that they had a problem from their body language…slumped and depressed.

It was also clear that whatever had left them that way was not to be revealed to me by the prompt way in which they turned and ushered me out to the balcony with offers of tea.

I drank my tea and they returned to the computer.

Danilo eventually went home and I thought no more about it until I mentioned pulling up some files from the computer.

Ah!

This sound always means that my response to whatever I am about to be told cannot be reliably anticipated.

What had they done? Hacked into the local animal feed store’s computer? Brought down the government? Bid for yet another watch on eBay which would cost more in customs fees than it had to buy?

No.

They had, I was informed, been looking for fencing wire on Mercadolibre….the local eBay….and because when the computer went down with a virus recently it came back to life with a pirated programme in Spanish from a man working in the prosecutor’s office Danilo thought he could understand how to use the computer, so he was let loose.

He had been doing well until they came across a blog about fine art prints that I had bookmarked….accusing gaze…and they had typed in fine art on the search thingy.
Why would they do that, one wonders…..and in which language…and with what spelling…

What had resulted…it appeared…was a list of sites offering what might indeed have been pretty fine art to some tastes and Danilo had been so startled that he had unwarily pressed a button.

Always a mistake when handling a computer.
Press nothing.
Either the whole screen disappears or worse, whatever it is fills the whole screen and you can’t get rid of it.

Which is what had happened to the Men.
Thus the slumped depression.
They had pressed more buttons – one of which must have been ‘save’ because The Thing came back when they turned the computer off and on.

It had turned into a screensaver..

I took a look when I went to use the computer later…..
It certainly wasn’t fencing wire.

Um. Danilo hopes you don’t think he was looking for that sort of stuff….?

No, I didn’t think either of them were, but in the way that computers always treat IT numpties it had ambushed them and left them up creek sans paddle.
I could almost see it smiling to itself…in Spanish.

Learning the Language


It’s not so simple, learning the language.

I remember learning to speak French in France…..I had ‘done’ French in school…in later life I picked it up again and had good reading skills, but living in rural France was an eye opener.
For a start all my neighbours spoke patois….

It could have been a disaster had my neighbours not also been kind and patient and had I not been introduced to a retired headmistress who wished to improve her English.
While announcing that in my spoken French I was clearly a woman with no past and no future, speaking as I did only in the present tense she told me not to worry.

Talk to people, listen to people…do what babies do…communicate…and one day what you’re hearing will be what you’re speaking.

She was right. I muddled along, read a lot, especially the newspaper in order to be abreast of the current scandals and one day I got there.
I spoke French.

And now I’m learning Spanish. Costa Rican Spanish, not the Castilian Spanish spoken by my husband.

I was talking about my language learning problems to a taxi driver….one of those chatty, friendly men who have proved to be superb teachers.

You’ve come to the right place to learn Spanish, he announced. Here we speak clearly; none of this limp wristed lisping in Central America!

He might have a point….but I suspect that at some stage in the colonial experience a Glaswegian element intervened as nowhere outside that jewel of the Clyde have I encountered a more pronounced glottal stop.

Ganado…cattle…is pronounced Gannow.

Cansado…tired…cansow.

I must be getting somewhere with the local version, though,  because when I bought a train ticket in Barcelona recently the ticket clerk replied:

Pura vida!

The watchword of Costa Rica.

And that from a Catalan……saucy devil!

But learning the language is one thing….how I’m using it is another.

Costa Ricans refer to themselves as Ticos….supposedly from their habit of noting affection or sympathy for something or someone by using the diminutive ‘itico’.

On the (mainly) North American expat fora, Tico is banded about readily when referring to local people or customs, usually in a somewhat condescending way….

A Tico house as contrasted to one built to North American standards….

What Ticos do as opposed to what the contributor does…..

And when the established expat human mosquitoes invite the newbies to  a get together to see how much they can  take them for you also tend to hear disparaging comments about Ticos.

So, though my Tico friends refer to themselves as Ticos…I feel inhibited from doing so from the way Tico is used by the expat groups.

I use Costa Rican…….Costarricense.

Then I’ll be with Costa Rican friends having coffee in the Teatro Nacional.

They’ll call the waiter over and address him as

Muchacho.

A bit like  saying ‘Garcon!’ to a French waiter.

But instead of peeing in the mustard for revenge, he takes it as normal and brings the order.

I can’t do that…or I feel that I can’t.

Yet when, years ago, we were travelling to Nicaragua, I didn’t find the same inhibition.

As we stepped off the bus at the frontier, a lady with a wad of immigration forms approached the passengers, offering to fill out the details for a sum of money. I said I could fill it in myself…but she still wanted money, despite notices all over the buildings stating that all formalities are free  of charge.

So at the entrance to the immigration offices…a Cecil B. de Mille crowd scene if ever there was one… I approached an unwary policeman and told him that the ‘muchacha’ wouldn’t give me a form.

He went off to the clerks at the desks and came back to say that they had run out of forms…but not to worry…the computer was working so no need to do anything.

So why did it come naturally to refer to her as ‘muchacha’ when I can’t call a waiter ‘muchacho’?

Is it that it was indirect…not to her face…thus not requiring respect?