Friday, January 12, 2007

Relearning the Language

Don't talk with a fake British accent
A southern man tells better jokes

-"Outfit" The Drive By Truckers

I'm four pints in at a pub babbling at some people and thinking about how I can't seem to use the word "cheers" correctly in a sentence. Whenever I say it it sounds forced and strange - maybe its my accent . . . who am I kidding of course its my accent. Now, I'm not trying to pull a T.S. Eliot anglicize my voice into new realms of pretentiousness, but when one is living in a foreign place its helps to use the vocabulary a bit (e.g. I say queue instead of line in England just as I wood say cervaza instead on Beer in Mexico).

Picking up a bit of the Queen's makes things go smoother, because it is a different language. For example. I am at a reception for LLM students, who are for the most part international, and I am talking to a guy from Pakistan. We have most intelligent discussion about literature and politics when he says, "Is my English OK? This is the first time I have ever been out of Pakistan?" Up 'til this point it hadn't occurred to me that English is not a language spoken in Pakistan. Later, though, this same guy asks me if I find the locals hard to understand. Intolerably hard.

But anyway I'm in this pub and I saying CHeers, chEErs!, CH!eeRs, cheerSS, over and over in my head trying to make it sound genuine, when I hear a sound from the back of the pub. It was a tornadocoming through a back door I didn't know that this pub had. No, check that its my wife, the same wife whom I just directed to this pub and has never been here before. She sees me and steps into the circle of people I'm standing with and says "Hiya!" to all of them. There is a beat of silence where everyone looks confusedly at the smiling girl standing in the midst of them and struggling her coat, scarf, gloves, and hat.

"This is my wife, y'all." (Yeah I use y'all over here, and even more than usual despite that it is essentially a nonsense word that gets stares . . . I just can't stop . . . its a subconscious rebellion I'm sure). Everyone looks relieved as earlier that week a drunk sat down at my table and wanted to discuss the Bermuda Triangle with me, and there were all hoping that I hadn't attracted another psycho (little did they know...).

As she introduces herself, I realize that she is talking in a full British accent. Not like when I talk in a British accent and I sound like a bad rendition of a Monty Python skit, but like a real Briton. I watch in awe as she meets a girl from Slovenia and asks, "Do you love it?" Not something that would occur to me to ask about Slovenia (don't get me wrong I'm sure it has its nice parts).

I am standing there stunned trying to figure out where she learned English (and how exactly she is pulling off that "cheers" - she does so very well) when she admits to me that she has been taking part in a transformative British activity with her coworkers.

"I've been having pints on the train," she said.

"Cheers, to that."