Shamed by You English?

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“Stankly Closing Daws!”

What, you don’t know what I’m talking about? You do if you’ve ridden the New York City subway much. It may not be pronounced correctly – not close – but even an immigrant right off the boat knows it’s the motorman’s warning to “stand clear of the closing doors.”

I hear it 12 times on most weekdays traveling between 175th Street and the Wall Street Journal on 47th on two different trains in each direction. And when I get back to Washington Heights in the evening I head straight for one of the semi-official jitneys (a.k.a. the Dominican Bus) across the “Jore Washing  Toe Brie” to “Four Lee.” There are two competing cash-only companies, each with their own conductor/pitchman/sales guy, and since both go across the George Washington Bridge to Fort Lee, the choice comes down to which bus leaves first (they have to fill up).

“Lee bee now! Lee bee now!”

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That’s the great thing about America, and New York in particular. Not only don’t you have to understand much of the official language to get by but speaking it is optional. Why should a hard-working bus tout who inhales diesel fumes for 12 hours a day, seven days a week, waste time and energy learning how to pronounce “leaving now?”

As a child of immigrants who only learned English when he started school, I think about this a lot. My sister, cousins and I didn’t have the option of settling for pidgin English given our career choices, but our parents and their extended community of friends were way too old and busy to learn all of the finer points. The farther you got from New York the harder this made things.

My dad, a few years after coming to the U.S. as a refugee, even got arrested in Mobile, Alabama in 1961 for using the “colored” bathroom in the bus station. I’d like to pretend he was making a principled stand for civil rights, but he just didn’t understand what the sign meant or what the cop was telling him. The cop almost certainly didn’t understand his response.

To a limited extent this linguistic confusion rubbed off on the first generation, or me at least. My dad, on the frequent occasions he didn’t understand someone, would say “pah-rah-me?” I thought this was what you said when you didn’t understand something.

Sometimes it was hilarious. His brother, my Uncle George, would put on his striped “cocksucker suit,” though that may have been a joke from day one. My grandmother went to the supermarket and nearly served us tuna cat food. My wife’s grandmother went to the store looking for “shits” – you know, the ones that go on the bed. My mom, who learned her English early on from African American nurses, still amazes me with her hungaricized  ebonics.

Once, when I was just learning English, I had a bad cold and an American family friend said: “Oh, you have a stuffed duck nose.” Well, that’s what I heard, and since you sort of do sound like a stuffed duck when you’re congested, I said that for many years until the inevitable, embarrassing correction. I also thought until about age 11 that a bike had a “cake stand” so it wouldn’t fall down. It forms a triangle and is shaped like a piece of cake so …

In any case, the moral of this story is to be thankful for, rather than annoyed by, the fact that people can get away with only a crude approximation of English here in New York their entire lives and be just fine. If you happen to be visiting from, say, Iowa, and are confused, just listen a little more carefully. And if you’re back home and meet a little foreign-sounding lady without a cat buying a lot of cat food that’s on sale,  please stop her.

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About SJ

I know, I already write for a living.
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