One thing you realize, once you start spending time with more and more non-Americans, is that you start to pick up vocabulary that just doesn’t make sense to your fellow countrymen-and-women.
And then you start to get frustrated because, under the pressure of time, you can’t think of a different way of describing, exactly, what you are trying to say.
This first became noticable to me a few months after my husband and I met. Even though he always speaks English to me, when he talks about some topics (mostly food) he, for some reason, uses Hindi or Marathi words. And, since I mostly know these foods in connection with him, I do the same thing. So, for example, my grocery list will look something like this:
Tomatoes, Onions, Chana, Rice, Veggie Burgers, palmitos, spinach, pasta, jeera, cilantro.
Chana is just how I say “chickpeas” now, I can’t help it. Same with jeera (cumin seeds). And palmitos? That’s Spanish, from when I was in Argentina. I just can’t bring myself to call them “Hearts of palm”- maybe because its just so cumbersome.
None of this is a problem, except when I’m telling an American how to make something, and I use the words chana or jeera, and then I sound pretentious. I don’t mean to, I just can’t translate it in a split second, sometimes.
The word “timepass,” is used by Indians so much that D. recently saw a British newspaper’s article about the word – Indians in London have made this phrase popular enough that ordinary Brits are using it, too.
It’s perfect for, example, describing a Bollywood flick — or one with Meg Ryan.
“How was the movie?”
“Oh, you know, it was funny enough. Timepass.”
Of course, this is the perfect way to describe a movie with Meg Ryan or Sandra Bullock.
There are other Indian words I’ve picked up, too, and which we use in general conversation – bukwas is one of my favorites. It means “bullshit.”
“ This stuff with the Republicans complaining about Obama’s speech to children is such bukwas!”
I’ve also noticed my English has become spotted with French words. Like “le vacance,” that French word meaning “vacation,” which is often used to describe the month of August, when most French workers choose to use up the majority of their 25+ vacation days. Everything shuts down. It’s les vacances.
I use it in English.
“Well, August is a good time to be gone anyway, what with les vacances and all.”
Granted, you can probably figure that one out, even if you don’t speak French. But lately, my fellow expats and I have even started using phrases that make no sense at all to others.
Je vous propose… the French use it in menus, for the specials of the day, or when you might formally be offering an idea for a yoga class or dinner among colleagues. Je vous propose… and then we switch to English.
“Je vous propose… a potluck dinner starting around 8 p.m. on Friday.”
And it starts to get even more confusing when we say it all in English.
“I propose that…we see the movie at 7 p.m.”
Who says that?
That sounds ridiculous if you live in America. In France, among English-speakers, it makes complete sense.
Of course, this sort of thing has been going on for centuries – look at the thousands of Spanish words that have roots in Arabic (aceituna, acelga, albahaca, almacén, jarra, loco, maquila…etc…). And all the Persian words that made their way into Hindi (how do you like ananas? This word means “pineapple” in Spanish, Arabic, Persian, Hindi…and tons of other languages. ) I’m sure they all started off as random words thrown into the middle of native speech, and they took off from there.
Or consider the Spanish words that have made their ways into everyday usage in the U.S.A. – like teenaged girls calling each other chica. Or how practically no one would mispronounce tortilla anymore. Hybridizing languages just makes sense, especially in this age of globalization.
I recently read a book called “Sea of Poppies,” by Amitav Ghosh, and part of what I loved about it was that it showed this type of mixed language in the way its characters, who lived in colonial India, spoke. The British characters in the book used a lot of Hindi-ized words (especially curses) and I thought it was really interesting that the author took the time to craft each character’s words as representative of how much Hindi they’d added to their English.
Just some khana for thought…