September 5, 2012

I find the words chosen to designate the days of the week fascinating.

During the week we revere heavenly bodies: in English “Sunday” for the sun, “Monday” for the moon, “Saturday” for Saturn; in French “lundi” for “la lune” (“moon”), “mardi” for Mars, “mercredi” for Mercure, “jeudi” for Jupiter  and “vendredi” for Vénus.

Most of the above are, of course, Roman gods as well, but they are not the only deities we have named our days after. There are Norse and Germanic gods in the English “Tuesday” for Tyr, “Wednesday” for Wodan, “Thursday” for Thor and “Friday” for Frigg.

In many languages Sunday is the “dominical” day, with “dimanche” in French for “dies Dominica” and “voskreseniye” in Russian meaning “resurrection”.

Likewise Saturday is the day of the Sabbath. The Ancient Romans called it “dies Saturni” as well as “dies Sabbati” and from there the French got “samedi”, the Russians got “soubbota” and the Arabs got “sabet”.

With Friday the Islamic holy day, the day “joumaa” resembles “jamaa” (“mosque”) in Arabic.

The other days of the week in Arabic simply sound like the numbers. “Ahad” (“Sunday”) is like “wahad” (“one”), “eethnayeen” like “eethnaan”, “thoulathaa” like “thalatha”, “arbeea-a” like “arbaa-a”, “khamees” like “khamsa”.

Russian, too, numbers the days of the week. “Ponedelneek” (“Monday”) means the day after the week starts or the day after the day that nothing is done, depending on which linguist you ask. Then there’s “vtorneek” like “vtoroi” (“second”), “sreda” meaning “middle” since Wednesday is the middle of the week, “chetverg” like “chetveeortee” (“fourth”), “peeatneetsa” like “peeatee” (“fifth”).

The most cosmopolitan language (at least for days of the week) is, in my opinion, Sousou. “Friday” is “youmay” like the Arabic “joumaa”. “Saturday” is “simiti” like the French “samedi” and “Sunday” is quite simply “Sanday”.

While none of this explains how I came to think that today was Blogday, or rather how I came to forget that yesterday actually was Blogday, I’m hoping that this will give you, gentle reader, a renewed appreciation for every day.



August 28, 2012

Where do miracles come from?

I have no credentials in ontology, so I would say from “miraculum,” Latin for “object of wonder”. “Mirari” is the verb “to wonder at, marvel, be astonished”. In Russian “chudo” and “chudesny” (wonderful) are clearly related.

In at least three languages (the French word shares the same spelling and origin as the English term), “miracles” come from “wonder”. In all languages, I dare say they leave us speechless.


All Aboard!

August 21, 2012

Politicians in the US like to pretend that no Americans travel by public transportation in an attempt to excuse their insufficient investment in public transportation. American car drivers like to pretend that no Americans travel by public transportation in an attempt to absolve themselves of guilt over polluting the environment. However, every time I have taken a bus or a train in Orange County, the ride has been more popular than Disneyland’s Space Mountain.

I’m not exactly “riding the gravy train” (living a life of luxury), so I don’t have a car. Even if I did, though, I still would have taken Amtrack down to San Diego because it’s almost cheaper than paying for gas (Los Angeles to San Diego $39).

Besides, traffic is horrendous on the 5 freeway and while all the cars are at a standstill, the train races past, “full speed ahead” (quickly).  There’s not much worse than getting stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic when you have an important appointment, so if you “have a train to catch” (have vital business to do), I suggest you catch the train.

Even if I’m not in a hurry, though, I like to take the train because I can read as I travel. I was really “chugging along” (making steady progress) in my book and other passengers rarely interrupted my “train of thought” (thought process).

If you have a kid who’s “like a runaway train” (out of control), you can let him run up and down the aisles even more easily than in your Hummer. And if you want to start your weekend by getting tipsy, the train has a well-stocked bar. I was admittedly a little shocked at how many passengers had “gone off the rails” (started to behave inappropriately) by the time they arrived at their destination, but I suppose I’d rather share the tracks than the road with a drunk. (It is my understanding that Amtrack limits passengers to two drinks each, but it looked as if that was, in practice, only at a time.

Yes, there are many reasons for taking the train and so on a recent Sunday afternoon there were, according to the conductor, 700 passengers traveling between San Diego and Los Angeles on one train (with trains departing every two hours). It was standing room only, and even standing room became scarce.

I would certainly take the train more often if the station weren’t so hard to get to. It’s only four miles away from my house, but requires two bus trips and since most buses run only once an hour and the connection’s not great, it takes nearly as long to get from my home to the train station as it does from the train station to San Diego. (Walking to the station is much faster, but less desirable when it’s 100°F.) Perhaps I live “on the wrong side of the tracks” (in a bad neighborhood), but it looks to me like bus service leaves a lot to be desired no matter where you reside.

I thought my carless experiment was original, but I have discovered it is far from extraordinary. The truly astonishing thing is not the fact that Southern Californians take public transportation, but that the state refuses to improve transportation enough to accommodate not just the would-be passengers, if the system were more convenient, but even the passengers there already are today.

Take Care!

August 14, 2012

On the phone or in person, a goodbye is often preceded by “take care,” the equivalent of the Russian “shastlivo!” (“happily”) and the French “bises” or “bisous” (“kisses”, the latter for people you are closest to).

Though it comes from the expression “take care of yourself” (“prenez soin de vous” and “prends soin de toi” for the formal/plural and informal/singular respectively in French), it is by no means used solely when a person isn’t feeling up to par. (“Get well soon” is “Soignez-vous bien” or “Soigne-toi bien” in French and “Skoreishovo vuizdorovlenia” in Russian.)

However, as I re-enter the only country where I have felt truly frightened of falling ill, the words take on their original meaning once again for me. Take care of yourself because your health insurance certainly won’t.

US Americans who pay for their own insurance could purchase a new car every year with what they pay in medical. Upon investigation, I was able to find nearly the equivalent of my state-provided insurance in France: everything is covered, there are no co-pays. Of course, the American insurance doesn’t provide dental or optical since eating solid food and seeing are optional luxuries. And of course, this American insurance costs $3600 a year for my husband and me, and there is a $12,000 deductible, for a total of $15,600 a year, whereas my French insurance was “free” (paid for in taxes that did not total $15,600 a year).

For you, gentle reader, who might come from a nation of innocents and not be familiar with these terms, a “deductible” is the total amount of medical bills you must pay before the insurance begins to pay. A “co-pay” is the amount you pay every time you go to the doctor or hospital.

An acquaintance of mine had to go to emergency and, after her tests that day, ended up with a bill of $30,000. Most insurance policies have a 20% co-pay for hospital. That is, she would pay $6,000. With the insurance described above (no co-pay), she would pay the deductible first ($12,000) and then the insurance would pay the rest ($18,000). It sounds like the first option is the better deal, but if she has to go to the doctor again, she will continue to pay 20% of all future bills. In the second insurance example, she no longer has to pay anything once she has forked over her $12,000 (for the year).

I consider the second insurance policy similar to the French system (just $15,000 more) because in the first example, it is impossible to know your final budget. If your medical expenses end up costing you $200,000 (and the great thing about medical technology today is that this could certainly happen), you have to pay $40,000 (plus the actual cost of having the insurance, at least $100 a month but increasing with age).

Either of those options is a bargain, though, compared to the “student discount” offered by Anthem Blue Cross through Wells Fargo Insurance Services. If a grad student wants to cover herself and her husband, it costs $1305 a month ($15,660 a year) in insurance fees. There is still a $500 annual deductible, plus 20% co-pays on everything, plus a maximum coverage of $100,000 per person per year.

So, let’s say my husband doesn’t get sick, but I do, and I have a total of $200,000 in medical bills in one year. That means our total health care costs are $15,660 for the insurance + $250 for the deductible + $39,850 in co-pays + $100,000 because the insurance won’t cover the second $100,000. That means I have paid a total of $155,760 and my insurance has paid $44,240. Now I can see why the insurance companies complain about the fortune they have to pay. I, on the other hand, can easily manage my share of the bill if my husband and I both sell a kidney.

Fortunately, most people are employed and are thus covered by their companies, right?

Wrong. Most companies do everything in their power to employ part-time workers to avoid paying for health care, which is understandable, because medical coverage is the equivalent of doubling the salary.

Many Americans, even those who have insurance, pray they won’t get sick because after they’ve paid for coverage they can’t afford to go to the doctor anymore. Is the problem greedy insurance companies? expensive medical treatment?

Don’t ask me. I’m just a linguist. All I’m here to say is the next time you tell an American “Take care,” say it with genuine pity and concern because this is the land where doctors are not free, the home of those brave enough to pull out an aching tooth with pliers to avoid dental fees.

Yes, take care, fellow Americans. I wish you well.

American Cuisine (cal will vary)

August 7, 2012

When foreigners think of American food (cal will vary), they rarely call it “cuisine” and generally picture a hot dog (315 cal with bun and ketchup) or hamburger (550 cal for a Big Mac).

While both are certainly popular in the US during barbecue season, they are in many other countries as well. Furthermore, lamb (approximately 200 cal) is just as popular at Easter, turkey (150-200 cal) at Thanksgiving and ham (approximately 150 cal) at Christmas. Just as “American” are potato pancakes (200 to 1700 cal including toppings) at Hanukkah, Vegetable Lo Mein (400 cal) on the Chinese New Year, a chicken burrito (500 cal) on May 5th and a pepperoni pizza (300 cal per slice) on Saturday night (historical significance unknown).

In fact, if you want to eat like an American (1500-3000 cal per day), the important thing is not what you eat, but how you count it.

And that has changed over the last few years, as I discovered on a recent trip to Mimi’s Café, a restaurant whose attempt at an “ambiance française” was demolished in 2011 with one single FDA blow. Right there next to “Quatre Fromages Quiche” was a smudge no less offensive to French sensibilities than a squashed cockroach: 770 cal. (That’s 770 cal for the quiche, not the cockroach.)

At first I thought this meant that 770 Californians had tried it, in keeping with the Mc Donald’s “1 BILLION SERVED” theme. But that didn’t sound like very many Californians for a popular chain restaurant.

It was only when my mother exclaimed, “316 calories for Balsamic Vinaigrette!” that I realized my error.


My mother heads up my “cultural reintegration team”, so she obligingly explained, “They have to tell you how many calories are in everything on the menu.” Then she added in an ominous tone that reminded me of the old “Buckle Up” ads: “IT’S THE LAW.”

I have yet to hear anyone order the “1131 Calorie Club Sandwich” or the “1950 Calorie Brownie”. (By the way, I’m not making these numbers up.  I don’t have to since all this is public information: IT’S THE LAW.) However, once you know the calorie count, you start to weigh your food options a little differently. Taste and nutritional value tend to lose their importance.

How did all this come about? Did the woman who sued Mc Donald’s because their coffee (2 cal black) was too hot also sue Denny’s because their bacon (35 cal a slice) was too fattening?

Regardless of the reason, the FDA has given new meaning to “American Cuisine”. We still might not be able to pinpoint which dishes are “typically American”, but at least we know how much weight they’ll put on us.

That’s Entertainment!

July 31, 2012

It’s hard to translate American “entertainment”, perhaps because no one entertains like the American entertainment industry. And yes, entertaining the American public calls for its own sector of the economy.

The most common French translation, “divertissement” sounds like a way of taking your mind off something, from “divertir” (to divert). Similarly, Russian offers “razvlechenia” from “razvlekat” (to distract). Oddly, Russians borrowed the term “divertissement” from the French as a synonym, giving a very 18th century feel to the notion. I imagine Catherine the Great looking to Voltaire for her “divertissement”, which is not, I believe, the same kind of entertainment MTV and the Disney Channel advertize today.

I agree that entertainment is a way for us to take our minds off things, but you could also argue for the translations “amusement” and “amuser le public” in French, or “uveselenia” from “uveseliat” in Russian (literally to cheer up). That makes going to the movies sound like a form of therapy, but perhaps that is not so far from the truth.

Many people, and not just Americans, complain that reading the newspaper is too depressing. They want and even expect to be amused or cheered up, not just when they go to a concert, but when they turn on CNN or attend a meeting at work.

As a result, news has become “infotainment” and professional seminars have turned into team building activity weekends. Don’t get me wrong. I love team building. However, this entertainment frenzy begs the question: Why are we so afraid of being serious from time to time?

There is nothing wrong with serious. Serious can be rewarding and even enjoyable. A baseball game used to be entertainment enough (although even thirty years ago we all had to sing “Take me out to the ballgame” during the seventh inning stretch and get out the beach balls during a no-hitter).

Today, watching well-trained athletes excel at their sport is apparently not sufficiently fun. A recent game at my local stadium was overshadowed by the fireworks for every home team run, dance contests among the spectators (and sometimes players) and the “kiss camera”. If you’re thinking: What do you mean the game was overshadowed by the fireworks? That’s part of the game! that is exactly my point. The additional “stuff” (and I use that term deliberately, although “stuffing” might be more appropriate) has become an integral part of the sport.

Entertainment stuffing has become more and more organized, and thus more and more expensive. The expression “work hard, play hard” has taken on even greater significance. People have to work harder to be able to afford to play harder.

Movies are unprecedentedly expensive to produce, so watching them is too (over $10 for one adult, the equivalent of a dozen chicken eggs, half a pound of fresh fish, a head of lettuce, a pound of tomatoes AND a loaf of bread at an average American supermarket).

One ticket for a baseball game at my local stadium is the equivalent of my food budget for a week.

Even at-home entertainment is outrageous. When I returned to the US, I discovered “free TV” no longer exists (in spite of all the advertisements). You cannot just plug in a television and turn to a public channel. You have to get cable to hook you up and you will pay no less than $30 a month for the “basic channels”. From what I have gathered, most people spend between $60 and $100 a month.

What about internet? Access in your home is twice as expensive as in France and a monthly smart phone bill runs an average of $100.

Yes, entertainment is expensive, but it is also a basic necessity, which is why many people can afford TV and a smart phone, but not health care. Entertainment adds to our quality of life whereas good health is just a bother.

If only hospitals could get a few comedians on their staff or some special effects in their pharmacies, surely Obama Care would be a more popular “bundle” than even those special AT&T offers.

You know?

July 24, 2012

Americans are constantly seeking consensus and mutual understanding. Is it because the nation was founded on democracy, majority rule, or is it that with so many different ethnicities and linguistic backgrounds, confusion and miscommunication are such imminent threats?

Regardless of the reason, Americans are always clarifying: “I mean,” comparing: “like” and checking for understanding: “you know?” For example, “The traffic was bad, I mean horrible, you know?” or “The traffic was so bad it was like bumper to bumper, you know?”

Learning these phrases, however, is not sufficient if you wish to communicate like an American, because the search for a connection is so much deeper.

The maintenance man at my apartment complex told me all about his desire to go to Russia one day when he found out I’d been there. My necklace sparked a five-minute conversation with a cashier who went on to list a few shops where she had seen some original jewelry. The shopper in front of me in line at the supermarket, perhaps uneasy about my eyeing her cart full of hotdog buns, explained she was buying everything for a church potluck.

Conversations in the US are naturally built around shared interests or at least empathy. It is the height of rudeness not to continue the discussion: advising my maintenance man on what Russian cities to visit, sharing my favorite jewelry store finds with the cashier and commiserating with my fellow shopper about a time I, too, had had to buy ten bags of hotdog buns.

Not responding to small talk is the equivalent of not shaking an outreached hand.  

Foreigners are often taken aback by how friendly and forthright (although many call it inquisitive, gabby or even naïve) US Americans are. They assume it’s insincere because in countries where families are closer geographically and are often the sole support system, it is hard to imagine why anyone would look to a stranger for a heart-to-heart.

In the US, however, families are often spread thousands of miles apart. People count on others: friends, neighbors and even perfect strangers they happen to cross in the street to share stories and compare ideas.

But I would argue that it is precisely because so many people living here speak different native languages or follow different traditions that they feel the need to connect. Human beings were not meant to live together as strangers. By chatting with one another so readily and most importantly by finding common ground – shared interests or opinions – they create a feeling of community. Simplifying things, you could say that it doesn’t matter if you speak Japanese or observe Ramadan, as long as you empathize with my embarrassment over having a shopping cart of hotdog buns.

I think it’s like one of the things that make the US so neat… I mean, such a wonderful place to be, you know?


July 17, 2012

I’ve lived only one of the past sixteen years in the United States. So is it fair to still consider myself American for anything other than passport purposes? My claim is yes, not because my reactions are more American, but because this is the only place where I feel completely free to honestly express my natural reactions.

However, that does not necessarily mean my recent move back to the US is going to be easy. Reverse culture shock is notoriously more trying because it’s so unexpected. One naturally assumes it will be easier to return to one’s country of origin, but both the native and the native land have changed.

It’s too early to say how shocking this “new” culture will be for me. Generally, during my first three months in a country, everything is wonderful. Between months three and six, everything is different. Between months six and nine, everything is horrible, and after nine months I either get used to a place and settle in or decide it’s not for me and pack my bags.

Right now I’m still in the euphoric stage, and though I’m not singing “The Star Spangled Banner” as I rise every morning, I do have to stop myself from kissing every smiling face I see on the street which, I should point out, I’m free to walk down unaccompanied whenever I want.

Will I be able to fit it? And just as importantly, will I be able to blog about American culture and language as objectively as I have tried to write about other destinations? Finally, which American culture and language will I be blogging about exactly?

One of my colleagues was recently admonished by a Colombian student because he’d used the word “American” as the adjective form of United States. Though I can see the Colombian’s point, his country has its own adjective and “United Statesian”, though more precise, is probably not going to be embraced by linguists, even avant-garde Anglo linguists who accept “I be” as just a variant, any time soon.

Agreeing on our terms and accepting “American” to mean “from the United States” doesn’t help all that much to define “American culture”, though, particularly in ethnically diverse California. Nor does it make it any easier to comment on the “American language”, which is so heavily influenced by immigrants from every continent in the world and whose geographical particularities are as diverse as one would expect in a country nearly as large as the entire European Union.

So this next challenge is formidable, in both the English and French sense. In the months to come, I hope to find words and expressions (be they Anglo or otherwise), that highlight part of the culture in my new, old home as I attempt to get used to being “American” or at least “United Statesian” once again.


July 10, 2012

Saying goodbye in Sousou sounds like trouble: “Oh-Oh”. And it could very well be with good reason. There are too many uncertainties inherent in Guinean life to be able to part with a light heart. It’s possible to put in a little “See you tomorrow” (“Ountina”), “See you soon” (“Ountaimoundi”), or “I’ll be right back” (“Mfama”) but all three are usually followed with the sinister “Inshallah” (“God willing”).

In Malinké I never learned how to say goodbye, and though that does not necessarily mean there is no way to say it, it does seem to indicate a certain infrequency. I learned “See you in the morning” (“Ambesoma”), “See you soon” (“Ambekofeh”) and even “You’ll find me here” (“Idinsorea”) when the person you’re speaking to plans on returning soon.

In French “goodbye” (“au revoir”) means “until we see each other again”. If you expect this parting is your last, however, you may wish him “adieu” (“until or to God”), which I interpret as “we’ll see each other before God”, though I suppose one could take it to mean “get yourself to God”. Either way, it sounds full of foreboding.

If you consider the original English meaning of “goodbye” (“God be with you”) and “farewell” (“fare thee well”), one might think you’re expecting the worst, but at least it doesn’t sound like a threat.

Arabic comes closest to the literal meaning of the English “goodbye”, as “ma’as salama” is “with the grace of God”).

I prefer the Russian way of parting. Generally “goodbye” is “dosvidania”, literally (“until we see each other again”), but if you don’t think it likely, you can say “proshaite” (“proshai” in the informal singular “ti” form). This is used in the same way as “adieu”, but literally means “forgive”.

All of these “final words” kept coming to me as I packed my bags in Conakry. Would I return to Guinea? Would I see any of the Guineans who had meant so much to me over the past year ever again? Nothing was more certain.

My heart was heavy indeed.

I had become attached to several people, but most importantly, I worried about what would become of them. On May 25, www.guineenews.org quoted the Canadian Mercer Consulting (unrelated to your humble blogger) as listing Conakry the tenth most dangerous city in the world, though the criteria were ambiguous: not a single Syrian city had made it to the Top 10.

How could I say goodbye? “See you soon?” “I’ll be right back?” “You’ll find me here?” None of that would work. Besides, Guineans, be they Muslim or Christian, involve God in nearly every heartfelt wish: “Have a good trip” is “Allah ghira so ehri” (“May God protect your route”). “My condolences” is “Allah gha yafa-ama” (“May God forgive him/her”). It seemed appropriate to put a little God into my farewell, but nothing came.

I clicked the lock on my suitcase into place and stood up. I was ready to leave Guinea. I wasn’t sure where my next adventure would take me, linguistically or personally, but I was ready to go.

I was ready, but there was a knot in my stomach.

I rolled my suitcase onto the landing and shut the door behind me, whispering, to no one but my Sousou self, “Oh-Oh.”


Le Français Guinéen

July 3, 2012

My ESL students in San Francisco loved to read dialogues in idiomatic English (like between two Valley girls) with the translation in “standard” English next to it. But learning colloquial expressions is not just amusing, it can be helpful, and if I had read this a year ago, I would have been spared a great deal of confusion myself.

Below you’ll find an excerpt of a conversation in Guinean French, the literal translation in English and the real meaning in English. As you will see in an upcoming blog, idiomatic English sounds just as silly when translated into literal French.

*               *               *               *

« Viens, mon ami! Tu vas où comme ça ?»

« Ah, Mohamed! Ca va ? »

« Ca va un peu. Et toi ? »

« Ca va, ca va. Et la famille ? »

« Ca va bien, Dieu merci. Ca va ? Tu fais quoi comme ça? »

« Je rentre. Ma fiancée m’a envoyé du riz doux ! »

« Ne te presse pas, mon ami ! Ton riz ne va pas partir maintenant. Regarde un peu cette porte. »

« AHHHHH ! Cette porte est gâtée ! »

« Cette porte est gâtée, oui. Il faut la réparer, n’est-ce pas ? »

« C’est cette chose qui est fatiguée. » …

*               *               *               *

“Come, my friend! Where are you going like that?”

“Oh, Mohamed! How are you?”

“I’m fine a little. And you?”

“I’m fine. I’m fine. And the family?”

“They’re fine, thank God. How are you? What are you doing like that?”

“I’m going home. My fiancée sent me some sweet rice.”

“Do not rush, my friend! Your rice is not going to leave now. Look a little at this door.”

“OHHHHH! That door is spoiled!”

“This door is spoiled, yes. It has to be repaired, doesn’t it?”

“It’s this thing that is tired.” …

*               *               *               *

“Hey there! Where are you going?”

“Oh, hi Mohamed! How are you?”

“I’m OK. And you?”

“I’m fine. How’s your family?”

“Thank God, they’re fine. How are you? What are you doing?”

“I’m going home. My girlfriend brought me over some of her delicious rice.”

“Hang on! Your rice isn’t going anywhere. I need you to take a look at this door first.”

“Your door’s broken.”

“I know it’s broken. Can you fix it?”

“It’s this part here that needs to be replaced.”…

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