Sunday, November 30, 2008

Lisp and Clear

By Andrew

My inability to speak Spanish with any degree of competence has had one small benefit: My arms are getting fit. I spend much of each day pointing at esto, eso, and those thingies over there. Ordering breakfast at a bakery, I could just as easily be directing aircraft at O’Hare.

When pointing fails, I admit that I revert to what is known among linguists as the English Method: I speak ever more loudly—in English—until I am understood. The British ended up with a large empire using this technique, which the natives found intimidating. It’s a little known fact that India was won when Sir Clive stopped to ask for directions.

What frustrates me most is that I can actually read Spanish. All those years of French and Latin, tossed with a smattering of Italian, allow me to decipher a good deal. Seeking some use for my expensive education, I now prepare pre-emptive phrases for any looming confrontations, such as haircuts (see earlier post), beer-ordering, and helado consumption.

This is a technique that was originally employed by my father when we lived in Switzerland. Dispatched to the bakery with orders to procure a dozen rolls, my father would practice his line all the way down the street. Unfortunately, Dad pronounced the German for twelve, zw√∂lf, in much the same way a wolf greets the full moon. By the time he reached the bakery, all the dogs in the neighborhood were howling sympathetically and my father’s nerve had failed him. He would proceed to order thirteen rolls instead, which invariably evoked a glare from the dour Swiss lady manning the counter.

Rattling off rehearsed lines also has an unfortunate side-effect. People talk back. If you’re lucky, they stay on script and you can sweep out of the store feeling fluent and worldly. All too often, though, they fire off a long burst, the only word of which I understand is peso. This is my cue to thrust great wads of cash at them and then stand there waiting expectantly.

To some degree, Spanish itself must take some blame for my problem. True Spanish demands that the speaker lisp alarmingly every time a word containing “c” pops up. This is not good. At my boarding school, people who lisped were beaten up behind the cricket pavilion, so I’ve always been keen to keep my vowels and consonants crisp. Lisping runs counter to all that, plus I tend to splodge a thick mist into the air every time I attempt it. This is fine when it comes from a right whale in the Golfo Nuevo, but less acceptable emanating from me.

Buenos Aires, too, must shoulder its fair share of responsibility. In a linguistic evolution that I do not yet understand, the good residents of BA have reshuffled their pronunciation of the Spanish alphabet. Pollo, pronounced “poyo” worldwide, here is delivered as “posho.” Yo, spoken in Spanish much as it is in English, is pronounced “jo” here. I spent the first two weeks in BA wondering who this Joe fellow was and why everyone was talking about him.

Delivered by a resident in full flight, the BA accent sounds like someone sweeping the floor—it’s a gentle back-and-forth ssshing noise. To duplicate the BA accent accurately, place 16 marbles (the small ones will do fine) in your mouth and say as rapidly as possible: “Surely, sister, some sheep stole your shish-kebab.”

As you can imagine, the combined effect of the lisped “c” and the BA “sssshh” has left me in a pickle. Every time I open my mouth, I sound like a drunk, gay man. Apart from one fellow who was wearing sparkly sneakers, most Argentines have recoiled in absolute horror. I am now placing all my linguistic hopes on Ecuador.


hipgolf said...

Your expensive education made you a very good writer. We've all been chuckling at this post.

Don't know why I can't get my google user id to show up instead of my hipgolf moniker.

Rosa de la bonita Owego said...

Ay,Andres . Tu escribes muy bien y espero que el espanol que hablas es bien , tambien. Esta cuenta causa unos risas . Recuerde que el espanol castilano, hablando en Espana con los labios , es elegante, pero los manos son siempre necesarios y utiles.