Wednesday, February 04, 2009


Today I wanted to post a scornful and withering broadside about the economy and high-end tax cheats, but I'm still too angry. I need a day or two to calm down before I can write rationally, and so I've decided to reinforce the popular success of yesterday's post about words with another language-oriented post.

Let's talk about accents.

Linguistic gaffes involving accents are a staple of bad jokes (like the Italian immigrant slapped by the waitress when he complained about his missing tableware by saying "I needa fock right here on the table"), but if you speak a foreign language or deal with people who do, they're a guaranteed linguistic minefield.

Agnes (who will probably shoot me for telling this story) speaks excellent idiomatic English, but there's no doubt in anyone's mind that she's German. One day we were having a mild disagreement about something and I was getting a bit frustrated. She glared at me and said, "Don't get tasty with me!"

"That's testy, dear," I suggested.

My favorite accent story dates to about 1979, when I was living in the beautiful city of Wiesbaden, Germany. Looking to practice my spoken German, one evening I dropped into a local Gasthaus (neighborhood tavern) called Zum lachenden Esel (The Laughing Jackass...their sign was wonderful) for a beer and to find someone to talk with. I sat down at the bar two stools away from an older man who was accompanied by his dog, a large, handsome Collie (note: in Germany, people frequently take their dogs into neighborhood bars and restaurants; it's perfectly acceptable, as long as the dogs are well-behaved). The dog was sprawled happily on the floor, sound asleep.

Looking to make conversation, I addressed the man and said something like "Sie haben ja einen sehr schoenen Hund" (You have a very good-looking dog).

He looked over at me and asked (in English), "You American?" (I think the military haircut gave me away).

I said yes. He nodded, looked down at his dog sprawled on the floor, then back at me and said (still in English). "Yah. Dat's a lazy dog."

I nodded agreeably and replied, "Ja, er sieht ziemlich faul aus" (Yes, he does look a bit lazy).

The man shook his head vigorously. "No, he's a lazy dog!"

I dug deep into the German-English dictionary in the back of my brain and confirmed that, yes, the German word for lazy was faul. "Ja, das habe ich gemeint - der Hund scheint etwas faul zu sein" (That's what I meant - the dog looks a bit lazy).

The man started to look exasperated. "NO!" he said. " da movies in America, yah gotta dog like dis...a lazy dog."

** The clue bird lands **


"YAH!" the man grinned. "Dat's what I'm tellin' ya...he's a Lazy dog!"

I still like remembering that story. We'll save discussion of how much trouble you can get into by confusing schwuel (humid, sultry) with schwul (gay, as in homosexual) for another day.

There are some stories just too embarrassing to tell.

Have a good day. Pronounce it correctly. More thoughts tomorrow.



Amanda said...

Yes, you definitely have another fantastic post on language.

I'm constantly in funny situations here with the way I'm pronouncing some Indonesian words. Thankfully, nothing too embarrassing yet.

Anonymous said...

Bilbo, don't get me started on this; with a Thai wife, my life is just one accent-induced laugh riot after another...for both of us. Thankfully my wife has the personality of a Perle Mesta (you're just old enough to know who that is)... and she constantly saves the day with her brilliant smile and incredible charm...

fiona said...

** The clue bird lands **
Where can you purchase one of these?
How much do they cost?
Are they easy keepers?
Thank you.

Bilbo said...

Amanda - good luck. It's coming...

Anonymous - having met and talked with your delightful wife, I know you and I can completely understand each other on this one!

Fiona - you will note that this clue bird landed in Wiesbaden. There are no clue birds anywhere near Washington, DC. In fact, I doubt anyone in this city has ever had a visit from a clue bird, much less understands their care and feeding.

Melissa B. said...

I promise not to get tasty with you, either. This post reminds me of my friend over at Eat Your Veggies! She posted the other day about being in a Mexico City restaurant...she thought she was so slick ordering in Spanish, and asked the waiter for jabon y hueves...soap and eggs!

Jean-Luc Picard said...

Language can be an entire blog with the variety!

Mike said...

excellent idiomatic English - An idiom is a phrase whose meaning cannot be determined by the literal definition of the phrase itself.

I had to look this up. Speak English will ya'?

Leslie David said...

I'll stick to Spanish--see it, say it and it's either masculine or feminine. Jabon y huevos--I'll have to remember that one when I go to Spain this fall. My favorite was when I was going to Puerto Rico to work with the National Guard and their training center is in Salinas, on the other side of the mountains. The person I was talking to on the phone made sure to impress on me that I wanted Salinas, not Salida, since every exit is marked that way.

I've looked at your post times--I'm not even up before 5 or 5:30 in the morning! Unlike you I am not a morning person--frequently I don't go to bed until 2 am after getting home from the Friday night dance--don't forget it's an hour's drive for me so if I left when the dance was over instead of staying to bs, it's at least midnight before I get home.