Learning a language



I was standing at the long bar in the Museo de Jamon in Madrid,  half-lifting an arm, half-opening my mouth in a vain attempt to catch the bartender’s eye when the Spaniard beside me, either out of pity or irritation, told me that to activate a waiter in Spain you simply called out Oiga, and forthwith demonstrated how it was done.
Oiga. The bartender responded immediately. No offence taken; none given.
The man went on to tell me that he could identify the nationality of  people by the way they entered a bar. The English, he said, stop as soon as they’ve crossed the threshold, look round sort of helplessly, fiddle with their tie (this was long ago when men wore ties), wait to be told what to do next.
So the next time I was in a bar I walked straight to the counter and tried out the Oiga gambit. The waiter seemed quite comfortable with it (although I wasn’t!).
To me it was like shouting  Oi to a perfect stranger.  Probably a class thing. A middle-class language thing…. I wonder if you would be good enough to pass the salt, please….sorry to trouble you, sorry to disturb the universe….

poppies spain PRINT good

When we were having a stroll in the Spanish Pyrenees one summer, we passed/were passed by other walkers and, as is the way of hill walkers, greeted/were greeted with a friendly Hola. So we decided to perfect our pronunciation of this one word greeting, replicating the Spanish stress, tone, intonation and pitch rather than simply saying  Hola with the English stress etc.  of  Hello.
It was surprisingly difficult. It made me think how much information you convey with a simple greeting. About class, age, personality, sexuality…..

Going back to my schooldays, I remember my excellent French teacher, Miss Yuill, telling us about the mysterious French sense of humour where foreigners were concerned.
” It was a picnic, ” she said, ” une pique-nique, beside a field of poppies on the hillside above the beautiful town of Collioure, famous for all the artists who painted there…..how many of you have heard of Matisse?……Good. Picasso?……. André Derain… There is something so special about the bright, clear light in Collioure.  Derain, who was Matisse’s friend, said that ‘Collioure has no shadows’. Can you imagine such a pure light?”
She paused, and gave a little smile, remembering.
” Anyhow it was a beautiful, warm sunny day, ” she went on, ” and we were having a picnic and Jean-Pierre had just passed me one of these French cakes that are so light, so delicious… ” She smiled again, then frowned.  “When  out of the blue,  à l’improviste, a wasp descended on the back of my hand and I leapt to my feet and shook it off and cried out ‘Dites donc! Un guêpe!’ And you know what? Everyone laughed. Yes, everyone laughed and I was so embarrassed, so hurt…..And you know what they found so funny? You know why Monique and Jean-Pierre and all these lovely people laughed at me?”
She paused and looked down  at her hands. We waited. She sighed and looked up.
Une guêpe. Silly old me. Not un guêpe. Une guêpe. Une guêpe!”
The class was silent. She sounded so angry with herself.  Or with her remembered self. All that time ago. Thirty, forty years. And still so hurt. Still so angry.

A Handful of Similes



dun t

Lonely as a truck on a siding in the Czech Republic

twa dugs Embra

Dispirited as 2 patiently waiting dogs outside the Weston Link in Edinburgh


BeggarMiserable as a  Glasgow beggar in the rain

behind bars

 Friendly as a tail-wagging terrier behind bars in Blairgowrie


Donald

Lithe as an early-riser in Iona

Jasc Ponte 4pic CanvasPreoccupied as a boy with his finger in his ear in France


Main Street, Stromness, May2011Empty as the main Street in Stromness

em 6k

 Happy as a Festival crowd in Edinburgh

SIGNS and MESSAGES


Notice in a student kitchen:


sign bm

The indignant voice of John Knox lives on in Edinburgh:

sign v

A Glasgow road sign no doubt trampled underfoot in the rush:

Byres Road sign

Dull & Boring

Dull is a small, one-street village in Perthshire on the North side of the river Tay; Boring, in Oregon, has a population of 8,000. They got together in 2012.

Ab 7

I came across this existential/defiant/plaintive fading statement on a wall in France:

j'existe 6

A sarcastic sign:

crash 2

A plaque on the wall of a house in Lerwick, Shetland:

Mrs Humphrey's

A security-conscious Christmas card:

Xmas card

An Asian alleyway in Lerwick, Shetland:

ORK THURSO 025

A reassuring neon sign outside Edinburgh’s Modern Art Gallery:

sign ok

SIGNS


Signs are usually brusque, devoid of humour or humanity –  rather like a sergeant-major’s barked commands to a nervous squad of raw recruits – LIFT….DINING ROOM ….TOILETS …BAR….SWIMMING POOL……SHOP…..SLOW DOWN….. TURN LEFT….. LEVEL CROSSING … EDIT…ADD MEDIA….. PUBLISH…. VIEW POST…… CLICK HERE….. STOP..
It comes as a pleasant surprise therefore to find signs that by their form and style amuse and surprise and entertain:

 

 

 

sign v

 

A very ironic johnknoxy sign seen in Edinburgh outside the Modern Art Gallery. It reminded me of the  archetypal Scottish joke ……On Judgment Day. as  the souls of the damned were whirling through the abyss down into the all-consuming  flames of hell, they cried out, ” O Lord, we didnae ken, we didnae ken!” and in response this mighty voice from above boomed out, “Weel,  ye ken noo!”

sign ok

but on the other hand……a cheerful and jaunty reassurance above the entrance to the Modern Art Gallery – I think both signs are the work of Martin Creed whose good-natured philosophy is very binary or dualistic or whatever.

sign bm

 

 

A polite apocolyptical global warning sign in a student kitchen……

 

Byres Road sign

A very Scottish sign seen in Glasgow’s Byres Road. Scots are addicted to pies. And bridies. There is word that a left-handed bridie is being developed in Forfar with the thumb-hole in the pastry casing placed correctly for a left-handed grasp.

sign rr   A wonderfully creatively welcoming door in an Amsterdam hotel which believed in giving the place personality, soul, a sense of humour, human warmth sign nn The Conscious Hotel, the same surrealistic hotel whose doors  give you such a warm, poetic  introduction to  Amsterdam. ” Your breakfast is 100% organic and there are plenty of healthy choices but we won’t force you to survive on nuts and berries. At Conscious hotels, you make the choices that are right for you. Except for wearing socks with sandals. Then we might say something..”
Or as Saussure famously said: “In language there are only differences. Even more important: a difference generally implies positive terms between which the difference is set up; but in language there are only differences without positive terms. Whether we take the signified or the signifier, language has neither ideas nor sounds that existed before the linguistic system, but only conceptual and phonic differences that have issued from the system. “

Language Love


You’re such a snob!

 

When Ariadne left me in mid-sentence and began throwing stuff  pêle-mêle  into cases and holdalls and bin liners, I asked her where it had all gone wrong, just what had I done to ruin what was, for me at least, a perfect marriage, and she paused long enough to say with unbelievable bitterness, “You’re such a snob. ”

I was knocked over. Bouleversé.

But I have  nothing against people who are of a different class, creed or race from myself, ” I protested. ” In fact –  ”

Not that sort of snob, ” she interrupted impatiently. “ You’re a language snob. That’s your problem. Our problem.  Pass me that case.

I was dumbfounded. Asombrado.  Décontenancé.

Just because I can’t stand people who say ‘ Between you and I…‘, ” I told her, ” and ‘He was laying down…’ and ‘there are less people…’ and ‘ she’s disinterested in what I say…’ and ‘ he could of went yesterday..’ and  ‘in this day and age’  and begin everything they say with ‘basically’ or ‘actually’ and 

But before I could say any more, she was off, taking with her my first editions of Graham Greenes novels, all my  Picasso’s blue period  prints and most of my  CDs of Beethoven’s greatest hits.

*   *   *   *   *

SSSPLLLASHSHSH


WORDSOUNDS

IDEOGRAMS

Words have sounds and rhythms which reinforce their meaning: ‘flip-flop’ echoes the sound and rhythm made by that particular type of footwear….and ‘thud’, ‘bang’, ‘crash’  etc. are obviously words that echo the sound they represent; words like ‘shuffle’, ‘flutter’ imitate movement as well as sound…..
‘Ping-pong’ sounds even better the other way round      –     gnip-gnop gnip gnop  gni….oops…pick it off the floor…there it is…there, under the chair…
Likewise  the word – SPLASH – is an  ideogram of the event it signifies:
1) The  initial  sibilant  –  S – replicates the hiss of the stone cutting through the air (SSS);
2) then  comes the plosive – P –  as the stone breaks  the surface of the water (SSS – P);
3) the labial –  L –  pictures  the stone gliding under the sutface  (SSS-P-LLL);
4) The concluding – ASH – is the plume of spray sent up by the stone as it disappears into the water (SSS – P – LLL- AAASHSHSH).

‘glides’   has the sounds to suggest after an initial thrust, effortless motion in/on/through water  –     G….. LLL….IDE….SSSSS

and it sounds even better in French:

Le cygne chasse l’onde avec ses larges palmes
et glisse………………

And  finally I remember from my schooldays when we had to learn poetry by heart, Alfred Lord Tennyson’s

” the moan of doves in immemorial elms,
   and murmuring of innumerable bees. “