Sunday, November 16, 2008

Gringo Lingo

Every day, a few more Norteños arrive. In giant RVs, camper vans, rent-a-cars, taxis from the airport, buses from the cities. When we first got here there were a mere handful of year-round Northerners, but their numbers are growing. Quietly, for now, but the locals tell us that after Thanksgiving, there will be a flood.

"You really think so?" wonders Big Dog. "With the economy the way it is?"
"But gas prices are going down..."

We had seen a headline in a local paper the other day telling us that gasoline was down to $1.50 or something like that in the States. It made us mad.
"Just when people are starting to think about taking that petroleum spike out of their veins!"
"The petroleum people are like drug dealers! As soon as we start moving away from gasoline, when we start demanding more efficient cars, they bring the price down. 'Oh, it's okay, you guys. You can drive your SUVs and Hummers. See? Gas isn't expensive!' They're evil."

Four bucks a gallon would have kept a lot of vehicles away, but now, who knows. This village may become as over-run with non-Mexicans as it was last winter.

The local Mexicans impress me with their tolerance for butchered Spanish. Maybe they are like the Japanese who appreciate English speakers making any attempt to speak a foreign language. We understand that English is today's lingua franca but it's moronic to presume everyone speaks it and rude to insist.

What fascinates me is the English-speaker's inability to accept unchanging vowel sounds. In both Japanese and Spanish, there are only five vowel sounds. They are constant. A is always a short "ah" and E is always a short "eh" etc. (People always talk about how the Japanese have difficulty with r's and l's, soft and hard th's, etc. but it's really the vowels, the many different breaths of sound, that really trip them up.) But when English speakers first learn Japanese or Spanish or Hawaiian, the vowels are all over the place. I have yet to meet a mainlander who correctly pronounces "Honolulu." It always sounds like "Hanalulu."

(And there are some languages where vowels are even more peripheral. I studied Old Testament Hebrew at university and remember how the Hebrew alphabet was all consonants. I believe Arabic is the same way. Ancient Jews called their God YHWH -- you were not supposed to pronounce His name. It was a breath, the life force, without sound. Does that mean that vowels are not peripheral, just taboo? Maybe vowels are in the realm of the divine and not something for us mere mortals. But that brings me to another tangent... The "om/aum" of Hindu/Buddhist belief comes from the first breath we take (o or au) and the muteness of death (m.) How can my brain retain all this information and forget any math I learned beyond the second grade?)

"Higuerra" is a main street in San Luis Obispo, near our ranch. Locals call it "High-Gerra" -- even the TV newscasters! (In Hawaii, at least the announcers approximate the correct pronunciation of their streets and cities.)

"If they can't pronounce it right, why didn't they just re-name it 'Fig'?" Big Dog keeps wondering, but he, too, will mix up his vowels. (It's hAbitAciones, my dear, not hAbitEciones though I understand you are thinking of the English "habitation" and so the second "a" begins to sound like "ay" and thus in Spanish, more like an "e.")

Japanese rarely correct a visitor's Japanese and often congratulate him/her on his/her "excellent" Japanese. It's their way of encouraging you to study more. The local Mexicans will not correct a gringo's lingo either. They won't tell you it's GuadalajAra, not GuadalajEra; AUtO-bUs (ah-oo-to-boos) not OtO-bAs.

Me? I'm no better and probably worse. I often mix up Spanish with Italian or French (like saying har-dan for jardin (pronounced har-deen here and jar-dan over there) and my conjugation of verbs is...well, virtually non-existant. But the biggest problem of all is that they let me get away with it. It's an impossibly long road to fluency.

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