All contents © 2020 Philip Semanchuk.
You've probably heard the joke before -- what do you call someone who knows three languages? Trilingual. Two languages? Bilingual. One language? An American. Well, reality has rubbed that joke in my face ever since I got here. I feel like an illiterate troll. True story: I was walking to the mailbox the other day and three little girls were playing on a fence by the mailbox. They were about seven or eight years old. Our conversation went like this:
Swedes study English for twelve years starting officially in fourth grade. I say "officially" because television and movies provide supplemental education. They also take a third language, like French or German. In my Swedish class I met an Australian who is also a reluctant member of the monolingual club. He summed up the situation nicely. He said that he doesn't mind knowing only one language, but he wants to know, "All those hours I wasn't studying another language, and what have I got to show for it?" Me, I can speak to an encyclopedic knowledge of Bugs Bunny cartoons and baseball statistics. Surely this will prove helpful some day.
Well, better late than never. Studying another language as an adult has been an experience filled with insight. I used to be able to speak without thinking; like the Mose Allison song says, "Your mind is on vacation but your mouth is working overtime." No more. In fact, it is the other way around.
Ahhh, English. You shower me with richness (opulence, treasure, abundance) that my clumsy provincial tongue cannot do justice. How do I love thee? Let me count the ways. Consider the difference between believe, think, know, know of, feel, guess, and consider. Between house and home. Between love for another and love for pizza. Or between different modes of simple, forward, bipedal locomotion: walk, run, stroll, strut, step, hop, skip, jump, leap, slink, saunter, stagger, swagger, waddle, hobble, sneak, stomp, sprint, race, trudge, traipse, tiptoe, sashay, lumber, limp, lope, jog, trot, tread, trip, march, weave, meander, wander, hike, stride, bounce, bound, pounce, prance, shuffle, goosestep, galumph, zigzag, scamper, stumble, amble, and of course, promenade. (Bonus activity: say that list out loud three times as fast as you can.)
Do we really need so many words to describe what you can do with two bare feet and a sidewalk? Of course we do! Imagine language without lyricism. Imagine a closet full of gray clothes, bells with no tone, a day without weather.
Since English is the de facto lingua franca of conversations involving multiple nationalities, it has been easy for me here. Everyone speaks on my home turf. Lyricism aside, it is literally the least I can do to enunciate (to the detriment of the remnants of my Philadelphia accent), to speak slowly, and to avoid high-rent words like "detriment" and "remnant". For a while I thought this was making me a better English speaker but now I'm not so sure. Today I tried to write the words "stretcher" and "morgue" and I wasn't sure of the spelling of either. That's OK, that's what dictionaries are for. What troubles me most is that my language is less colorful. I can't say I have a seat on the fifty yard line or a dog in the hunt or that I something is bass ackwards or that I am fit as a fiddle. Or that my spelling isn't worth a plugged nickel. These phrases are gone but not forgotten (yet). So here's to all those words and phrases leaving my mind for that Great Big Thesaurus in the Sky. May we meet again someday. Consider this next part their epitaph. I want to use as many idioms as I can without being obnoxious. I want to strike a delicate balance between colorful and garish without thinking too much about how strange it is to deliberately strike something delicate.
Lest I should make you think I don't have but two brain cells to rub together, let me make it as plain as the nose on my face that I don't know Swedish like the back of my hand. Not even close, and they say that "close" only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades. So I'm not sure if I can give this language a fair shake, but I'll take a crack at it.
In Swedish the verbs are a piece of cake. I don't mean to shoot my mouth off; learning any language takes some heavy lifting. But compared to French verbs, for instance, Swedish verbs are as easy as pie. Well, there's no such thing as a free lunch -- they make up for it with the prepositions. My Swedish teacher, no pessimist he, calls them hopeless. You live på a hotel, but i an apartment. You do something twice om a year, but twice i a month. If you did something last Tuesday, you did it i tisdags, but if you are going to do it next week it is på tisdag. 'Nuff said. Prepositions in Swedish have me as confused as a calf at a new gate.
I have relearned that big things come in small packages. The formidable word skattemyndigheten means simply "the tax office" while the verb få can mean receive, get, obtain, acquire, make, bring, may, can, be permitted to, be able to, and have to. It is also used in få av (get off), få på (get on), ad nauseum. Swedish has a sense of humor because these words have unrelated meanings, too. Thus we get a tongue-twister: Far får få få får. (Father may get few sheep.) Try that with skattemyndigheten.
A Practical Guide to Pronouncing Swedish
Swedish reveres vowels and there are nine of them in the language: a, e, i, o, u, y, å, ä, and ö. My ears have the sonic sensitivity of a sweet potato, so I have some trouble hearing the difference between all of these sounds.
When these vowels are followed by a double consonant, they change to a short sound which is a bit different. All of these rules apply strictly, except when they don't.
The consonants are simple. With just a few rules you can be well on your way to speaking like a native. First of all, learn to roll the R, like a cat purring, otherwise you will forever sound hopelessly American. More to the point, it is fun! Try it with me now -- RRRRRRRRRRRRRRRR! Now that you have that mastered, we will move on to some of the trickier ones. Despite the fact that it is two letters, W commands no respect. (And why do we call it "double U" and not "double V", anyway?). W is always pronounced like a "v" and W words are even filed in the V section of the dictionary. K is pronounced "k", thankfully, except when it sounds like "sh". TJ sounds a lot like "sh", but with a wee bit more snap. G, when it is pronounced at all, sounds as in English unless it precedes one of the dreaded "softening" vowels which changes it to a "y" sound. J is simpler. It always sounds like a "y", except in combination with S, as in stjärna (star), or sju (seven). To pronounce the sju sound, imagine you are in a very fine restaurant with tall white candles, heavy cutlery and crystal glasses. There's a bottle of French champagne chilling on the table and a string quartet playing a waltz softly in the background. Your date is approaching the table smiling. Meanwhile, you are discreetly trying to eject from the back of your throat into your napkin a small, live lizard. Congratulations! If you can make this sound you can count to seven.
I never thought that I would be 34 years old and someone would be teaching me how to tell time. Telling time in American English is pretty simple. At 1:15 we say "one fifteen", or "a quarter after one", or "quarter past one". At 3:40 we say "three forty" or "twenty till four" or "twenty of four". For 4:30 we can say "half past four". Add in special words like noon, midnight, o'clock, AM and PM and that's about all you need to know. UK English shortens the phrase for the half hour mark, so 4:30 becomes "half four".
Naturally, this is different in Swedish. For starters, 4:30 is "half five", not "half four", to the dismay of all the UK residents in my Swedish class. To complicate matters, during the time of 20 and 40 minutes after the hour, the half hour mark becomes your reference point. So while 4:10 is "ten after four" (tio över fyra), 4:20 is "ten before half five" (tio i halv fem). Likewise, 4:37 is "seven after half five" (sju över halv fem). And as in English, the fifteen minute marks are usually referred to with special names; at 2:15 it is more common to say "quarter after two" (kvart över två) than "two fifteen" (två femton).
Someday this will all come naturally to me, and the origin of my accent will no longer be obvious after just two words. But not yet. Now, when asked for the time, sometimes my provincial peanut brain seizes up when simultaneously trying remember the math, whether or not it is half four or half five, and how to make the lizard sound. (So sue me, I'm stupid.) But there is one sure-fire response that knows no linguistic barriers -- a lie. I can always say I don't know what time it is.
Here are some of the phrases that didn't get to appear here but deserve an honorable mention: a horse of a different color, dog tired, pitch a fit, lie like a rug, coyote ugly, pardon my French, bigger than a breadbox, six of one and a half dozen of the other, hindsight is 20/20, doesn't know his ass from a hole in the ground, knock me over with a feather, the lights are on but no one is home, not the brightest bulb in the chandelier, not the sharpest tool in the shed, come hell or high water, why buy the cow when you can milk under the fence (thank you for that one, MK!), drive the porcelain bus, hit a home run. If I say that someone's idea is a home run, what does that mean?
Think of the thumb, glory of the primates, each unique among its peers. Think of it pressing in fierce, studied concentration on red laces that leave their mark among fine fingerprint traces. Think of the sign from the catcher, the nod of affirmation from the pitcher, barely a dip of the cap, which precedes the stretch, the rearing back, spikes aloft and shedding dirt, the arm which whips forward with a force that surely must separate it from the body, the grunt of release. Think of the hideous humble hidebound baseball hurtling towards the catcher's mitt until the bat, just a splinter of fine-grained Pennsylvania ash but looking like God's Own Swift Sword if you're the size of a baseball, swings around and knocks you over the dismayed shortstop, over the retreating centerfielder, glove outstretched, worn neat's foot-oiled surface shining dully and unappreciated in the sun, over the fence, over the sign that says 408, into the seats and beyond. Home run.
A more ridiculous, charming set of words I may never see again in my life. They are a mirror for our vagaries and in that mirror I see our ability to laugh at ourselves. Can you tell me why a fiddle is fit and pie is easy?
Anyway, thanks for reading. I have to go see a man about a dog.