Language As A Code (Or – Why What We Think We Are Saying May Not Be What Other People Understand We Mean)

In my 43 years on this planet we call Earth I have been exposed to the grand total of 4 internationally recognised languages, one interesting mix of two internationally recognised languages (which I still sometimes speak today), several accents, and at least three regional dialects.

In fact, I am still surprised that I managed to get a “C” Grade in my French GCSE – my Speaking exam involved a mix of French, Dutch, and German.

There is a story which my Mum told me about when I started school.  My parents and I had moved from my native Norfolk to Leicestershire shortly before this momentous event.  I know the Norfolk accent (when spoken properly) can be a little difficult to understand but I don’t think there was any need for me to be forced to undergo speech therapy as a result of it (luckily my Mum – who had a thick Dutch accent at the time – put a stop to that.  “Don’t worry – they all sound like that where she comes from!”  “Where’s that?” “Norfolk” “Oh”)!.

I could tell you all sorts of things about the confusion which can (and does) arise when you grow up hearing two languages together – to the point of hearing half a sentence in one and the other half in the other.

Instead, I am going to tell you about my two favourite “words” which can cause no end of confusion for the uninitiated.

The first word is one which I have to see written down so I am absolutely sure what it means.  If I hear it (and my brain is not fully switched on for whatever reason) I will probably get the wrong definition at first.

“Lane” is easy for English people to understand.  However, imagine you are 5 years old and you hear your Mum sounding excited because you are going to see “Lane”.  Why all the excitement about going to see a road???  One road is pretty much the same as another, after all.  You commence your journey and arrive at someone’s house.  When you go in all you can see are a group of humans -no road in sight.  Then your Mum (or another relative) addresses one of the gathered humans as “Leen” – pronounced the same as the English word – and they answer with a stream of gobbledegook.  Turns out that the “street” you thought you were visiting is actually a person.  Weird.

If I had to pick my all-time favourite word of any language I have attempted to read or speak it would be the one which – to English ears – sounds like one of Dr Who’s metal enemies.  Never having seen this word written down properly I am unsure of the spelling but a word which sounds not unlike the English “Darlek” is music to my ears.

Not only does this word translate into English as “Soon” or “Imminently” – it marks the speaker out to me as coming from Rotterdam (in much the same way as “Cob” for a bread roll will mark someone out as coming from Leicestershire).

As I was never taught “textbook” Dutch I grew up thinking that “Darlek” was a true Dutch word (I only found out that it is a “Rotterdams” dialect word when I bought a “Rotterdams Phrasebook” a few years ago).

However, the most confusing phrase or sentence for me is not from the Dutch language – it is from the Glaswegian dialect.  I am sorry but if someone asked me for “a roll and ham salad” they would find themself receiving exactly those items – separately (much to the disgruntlement of my best friend – who happens to be Glaswegian).  I do not understand how people can expect to receive what I understand to be a “ham salad cob” (or bread roll with ham salad filling inside it) when they have specified they want them separately.

Remember I said I still sometimes speak a mix of two internationally recognised languages today???  My Mum managed to train me so well when I was growing up that my Dad and I can have a conversation in a mix of English and Dutch if we want to discuss something without anyone else understanding a word we say – or even if we want to speak about something and we don’t think the English word describes it accurately enough.  A particular favourite word we use is “rookworst” which is translated as “smoked sausage” but we use to mean the horseshoe-shaped smoked sausages made by companies like “Mathessens”.

Never mind using old words for new things – or inventing completely new words for them – all we need to do is make sure everybody knows what the words we use actually mean.

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