Tuesday, 9 June 2009

Living the life bilingual: Part 3

Words fail me.

Strange as it may seem, it's true at times. Those little blocks of language that have always been my allies just aren’t always there to do my bidding.

They got me through the horrors of being a seriously uncool and unsexy teenager with legs like upturned milk bottles. They got me through countless job interviews when I’ve sat there thinking ‘Any minute now they’re gonna work out that I haven’t got the faintest idea what I’m talking about’. They even got me out of a more than one beating from the scariest girl at school.

And yet, I find myself struggling to find the words that should leap unaided and elegantly to mind, but stay stubbornly buried in my subconscious.

‘What’s that thingy, you know, that - erm - machine wotsit, that um, washes? What’s the word?’, ‘You mean a washing machine?’. ‘Yes! That’s it. Well done!’.

I guess it is one of the perils of spending about 50% of your time functioning in a second language. Certain turns of phrase become second nature and the sneaky little buggers creep into your first language, cancelling out some of the simplest words and phrases.

On the one hand, you could say that being bilingual can only enrich your vocabulary – which is true. But that’s not much help when nobody has the foggiest idea what you’re waffling on about!

It can be the simplest thing, like prepositions. You can usually spot a Greek who speaks excellent English by their prepositions. Where we have ‘on, at, in’ etc., Greeks say ‘sto’ (or sta, sti, ston, etc., depending on the sex of the sentence – but that’s another story). So when you hear someone say ‘they were sitting to the table’, they probably didn’t grow up in Guildford….

Greeks simplify the act of switching things on and off by just saying ‘anigo’ (open) and ‘kleino’ (close). They open and close everything, from windows to the telly, whilst we tend just open doors or tins of beans. So I guess it's no wonder that my mum gives me one of her funny looks when I tell her to close the light.

Then, we get into the joys of phrases that defy translation (actually, it’s a good thing that literal translation is so flippin' useless – otherwise everyone would use the free online Babel Fish programmes and I would be deprived of my occasional source of pocket money).

Take a thong, for instance. Colloquially, some Greeks refer to it as a ‘kouradokofti’, or simply (and graphically) put, a ‘pooh cutter’. Wonderful image, but it would definitely be lost on the streets of Eastbourne.

And if you want to say the equivalent of the sarcastic 'big deal' in Greek you have a choice of 'siga to polyelaio' (slowly the chandelier), 'siga ta avga' (slowly the eggs) or 'siga to lachano' (slowly the cabbage). Slowly just about anything, actually....

And when you predict that uproar will ensue you say 'tha ginei tis putanas' (the prostitute will happen).

So, as you can see, literal translation is no bloody help - you've got the really live the language to get a decent grip on it.

And even if you do, some things never leave you and they actually become some of your characteristic quirks that mark you out as the 'pet Brit'.

I don't know if it is a Surrey/Sussex thing or if it's just me (could be), but I have always used the expression 'standing there like a lemon'. Dropping that into a Greek conversation always prompts a few odd sideways looks.

And if that was not enough, there are certain words from my childhood - courtesy of my too-soon-departed Dad - that have firmly established themselves in my slightly schizophrenic Anglo-Hellenic existence.

No-one else knows what the hell my son and I are talking about when we say 'ning' (quick hug) or 'grupping time' (time to get up, gerrup, grupping time - geddit?), but we do - and that's enough.

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