Tiny Coconut

I have things.

Friday, February 18, 2005

Learning the Language

Twenty years ago--the year I turned 21--I was living in St. Andrews, Scotland, attending university and living in Scottish dorms, all as part of a free ride I'd gotten through a competitive scholarship exchange program.

It wasn't until I'd spent some time there that I truly came to appreciate that when you travel abroad, there's almost always a language barrier--even in countries where you ostensibly speak the same language.

It made for some great fun, and some great stories. One of my all-time favorites was when I had just begun dating a guy, and we had plans to go for an early-morning walk the following day along the famous Chariots of Fire beach. (Very romantic.) As we parted that evening, he said, "Right then. I'll come by at 6 and knock you up."

"You'll do WHAT?" I said, not sure whether I was supposed to laugh or slap him.

"Knock you up," he said, confused. "Um...Rap on the door to wake you up so we can get on with our walk?"

Ah. That was better.

He was equally confused, it seemed, by my continual reference to his pants, which apprently are undergarments in the UK. "Nice pants," I'd say, and he'd flush for a second, then laugh. "Oh, you mean my trousers," he'd reply. My turn to turn red.

And then, of course, there was all the fun to be had with my real name, which is the homophone for what they call a truck--a lorry. On my 21st birthday, my boyfriend--a different one, by then, from the one who wanted to knock me up--and his 'mates' each gave me a card with a lorry on the front. My boyfriend's roommate, Roddy, liked to just call me 'Truck' to annoy me.

By the time I returned home to New York City, after ten months of living amongst those gorgeous Scottish voices, with their rolling and lilting sounds and wonderfully descriptive phrasing, I had taken on a sort of horrendous affectation, a bastardization of both languages, in which I combined my stubborn New Yawk accent with the words and phrases of Scotland. (Of course, there are those--and I'm among them--who would say that a New York accent is already a bastardization of our language, but this just made it worse.) After several weeks of hearing things like, "Yo, mum, whatcha makin for dinna?" and "I dunno. I've gotta suss out what I'm gonna do with all dat cash," my mother was ready to strangle me.

"Could you pick a language and stick with it, please?" she'd say.

Over the past two decades, I've lost most of both of those linguistic idiosyncracies. My New York accent isn't nearly as prevalent as it used to be; there are days when I actually sound like an intelligent person without even having to think about the fact that the word saw doesn't have an r at the end of it. And most of my Britishisms fell by the wayside long ago, along with the boyfriends. I miss them--the Britishisms. Not so much the boyfriends.

As N grows up, I keep thinking about how his language development parallels the experience I had: he's losing all his Noahisms, slowly but surely. He no longer needs "pry-see in the chicken"; he still needs pry-see, but it's in the kitchen, these days. The good news is that he still eats hangaburs with cheese. And while he no longer points out the red "fie ninininininin," but rather the red fire engine, he does still strum the strings on his electric "tictictictictar." Plus, he's almost completely understandable these days; the baby pronunciations of letters are fading, and you can suss out (hee!) what he's trying to say 100% of the time if you have the context...and if he's not talking in the baby gibberish voice of one of his imaginary friends.

The wonderful thing, however, is that he already has an appreciation for those days gone by and their preciousness. For instance, two Decembers ago, he was too young to be able to point out all the beautiful lights on our drive home; instead, he called them "boolyahs." Last December, as we again drove past the displays of color and light and he told me that the light were "byooful," I told him about that story, and how everyone in our family so loved the word boolyah that we'd taken to calling them that along with him all that previous season. Immediately, he decided that that was it--he was going to call them boolyahs forevermore.

"I know how to say byooful lights, Mommy," he informed me. "But I going to call them boolyahs anyway." And he did, giggling each time.

That's N, my boolyah boy.

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