An Australian, a Swede, and an Italian Walk Into a Bar
Posted On June 30, 2023
This is no joke. Growing up in the rural American South, I didn’t encounter very many foreigners. The US is a big land mass with English speakers to our north and Spanish speakers to our south. We’re 332 million people in four million square miles that all speak the same language (except for those folks up in Boston). Europe is a mosaic of countries with defined, yet indistinct borders. You can drive across most of Europe without a passport check, like driving from Georgia to Wisconsin. There might be a sign saying Welcome to Belgium, but otherwise it’s seamless. So it should not be a surprise that I’ve met so many people from different nationalities here. I am, however, constantly amazed by this.
You Say Tomato
I’m starting to pick up on the different Italian accents and while I’m by no means an expert, I can tell you that the people over in Citta di Castello (a mere 15 miles away) speak different from the Anghiarese. And I have a hard time understanding them. Just like their accents confuse me, the different accents in English speakers confuse the Italians. They know we’re speaking English, but they can’t tell if we’re Austrailian, North American, or British. And if you can understand the British accent, chances are you won’t understand mine.
I was recently at a cocktail party with an Italian man who was just starting to learn English. He wanted to practice with native speakers, so we were happy to oblige. The hosts were a lovely couple, she from England and he from Sweden. So, you had me and Steve with our Southern accents, a proper British accent, and perfect English spoken with a Northern European Swedish accent. The poor Italian didn’t know what had hit him.
This United Nations of English speakers is not unusual here. In fact, if we hear American English it is cause for a double take. The vast majority of English speakers are from England and a good many from Australia. There a few Canadians as well, but unless they say “out” or punctuate their remarks with “eh”, they sound just like Americans. And then there are the countless other nationalities that speak English. If they don’t know Italian, they use English. So we hear English with German accents, Spanish accents, French accents and all manner of other accents. It’s lovely to hear your native language being spoken so eloquently by someone from another country. Like your words are being dressed up in finery and taken out to a ball.
We are frequently reminded of how deficient Americans are in languages. I stumbled through basic Spanish in high school and college, never having to use it for anything more than understanding what Cinco de Mayo means. We feel very conspicuous, and pitiful, when people around us speak to us in English no matter their native tongue. I guess there has to be a bridge language and I’m darn glad it’s English, but it makes it too easy for us to get by.
I can tell you that spending your whole life speaking only one language makes it very difficult to make your brain learn a new one. I have heard that one of the best exercises you can do for an aging brain is teach it a new language. My brain is rebelling at this, reminding me of its stubbornness. If only life came with subtitles so that conversations could flow seamlessly no matter the languages involved. That probably exists on some AI platform and my grandchildren will one day say things like, “Remember when our poor grandparents had to actually learn another language?”.
The Italian Slide
This is not a disco move, but a way of pronouncing certain words. An Italian friend recently told us about it and it makes so much sense to us now. There’s a castle near here called Pianettole. We are careful to pronounce every syllable like the good students we are, but we’ve found out we’ve been saying this word wrong. We said “pe-AN-a-TOLL-eh”, in that sing-songy way Italians have of speaking. But our new friend told us it was “pe-ah-NET-toll-eh” and it was all kind of run together in the middle. The Italian slide. I guess it’s kind of like us shortening the “ing”. I’m going becomes I’m goin’ or I’m gonna. But they have so many more syllables than us that it all slides together in the middle of a word. Now that we know about the Italian slide, we can employ it on some of the trickier words that we struggle with. Just slide it along and act like you know what you’re doing and you’ll be fine. At least, that’s our new strategy.
A Surrogate Grandchild
I’ve sort of adopted a surrogate grandchild. He doesn’t have grandparents here and I don’t have grandchildren here so it seemed like a good fit. And he speaks English – a huge bonus in a grandchild. Henry has a British mother and a Swedish father and speaks English with the most delightful British accent. I’ve always had a thing for a British accent, but there’s something so Dickensian about a child with a British accent. I mean, who can resist Tiny Tim and his “God bless us, every one”?
I made some chocolate chip cookies, that great American treat, and gave Henry a bag. He’s ever so pleased that his new surrogate Grandmother bakes chocolate chip cookies and pronounced them mighty fine. Except he calls them biscuits and he calls my brownies muffins. Same language, just different nuances. But chocolate chip cookies taste good no matter what you call them.
The more I’m around the Brits and Australians, I find myself saying things like “It’s really quite lovely, isn’t it?” instead of “That’s really pretty”. And now that I know the Italian slide, I’m sure I’m close to acing that language. But fear not, I will never forget my Southern roots. Heck, y’all, just because we’re living in high cotton over here doesn’t mean we’re fixin’ to get uppity. Bless your heart.