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Speaking in Tongues

May 23, 2010

After talking with me, some people are surprised that I am a native speaker of English.  It’s a long story that has to do with growing up in Brooklyn Heights and developing a thick New York accent at an early age.  Here is the short version.

At five years old, I sounded like a dockworker.  With maybe just a little less swearing.  But after only a few years of speech therapy I got my R’s, L’s and Th’s back.  The only drawback is that now I speak like nobody else.  It just so happens that I laugh like nobody else, but that is a separate matter entirely.

Perhaps as a result of this experience, I butcher the pronunciation of words.  Sometimes I do it for fun.  Other times it is purely accidental.  Wines and cheeses offer some of the greatest challenges, especially the French ones.  But menus are no walk in the park either.

Despite my better efforts at trying to pronounce things correctly there are still a few occasions where I have been completely, and mysteriously, incomprehensible.  Here are two stories about two restaurants, neither of which is in Albany.  Which just goes to show that I can be critical of establishments well beyond the Capital Region.

Years ago I was at a French restaurant in Berkeley.  Our meal was unexceptional, but still we decided to stay for dessert.  There were a few different dessert crepes and they also served a tarte tatin.

As an aside, I love tarte tatin.  It would makes sense that here in apple country one would see this classic dish everywhere, but I have yet to encounter it in my travels.  More’s the pity.

Anyhow, the waiter comes up and asks,

W: Would you care for any dessert?
M: I’d like the tarte tatin.
W: [silence, with a confused look on his face.]
M: [slower] The tarte tatin.
W: [more silence]
M: [sheepishly pointing to the menu]
W: Ah, the tarte tatin [dripping in a French accent]

Now, granted my pronunciation was deeply flawed.  I understand that.  But the dessert menu only had four choices.  Only one of them was a tart.  As badly as I butchered the French language, let me assure you that it couldn’t have sounded like anything that could have been confused with “crepe.”

Still, it’s a French restaurant and one comes to expect that sort of thing.

What I didn’t expect was a similar occurrence relatively recently on the trip to Tempe.  Our last meal we had room service.  Well, really we had Mexican delivered from an amazingly delicious and authentic-ish place nearby, which we ate up in the room.

I ordered the cabeza torta.

I’ve ordered tortas before from Mexican food carts on International Boulevard in Oakland without a problem in the past.  Plus after growing up in Miami, Spanish is as close to my second language as anything else.  At the very least I have studied it for several years, and have a working knowledge of its pronunciation.

But that didn’t help me here.  After several attempts of trying to say “torta” the woman on the other end of the line remained dumbfounded.

Ultimately I succumbed and asked for the cabeza sandwich.  To which she said, “Oh! A cabeza torta.”  It was the thickness of the accent on that one word when she was correcting my pretty reasonably pronounced attempt that made me remember the French place in Berkeley. 

I don’t know which is better, to make an attempt and fail, or not to attempt at all and just point to the menu.  But I am always going to try.  It would be nice if the staff would at least make an attempt to untangle the damage I have done to their language.

Luckily, at least in the case of the last Mexican restaurant, the quality of the torta was well worth any indignity I had to face to procure it.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. Mr. Sunshine permalink
    May 23, 2010 1:15 pm

    Me, at Mont Ste.-Michele, France, in a convenience store: “Marlboros, s’il vous plait.” Clerk, female, with a dumbfounded yet haughty look on her face: “Quoi?” This went on for a bit, so I pointed, saying “Marlboro! Marlboro!” “Ah,” she said, “MarlboROH” (heavy accent on the last syllable)! Me: “No, Marlboro.” It is, after all an American product. I don’t ask for, e.g., Gall-oys, I say Gauloise.

  2. Margie C permalink
    May 23, 2010 1:54 pm

    I butcher French on a regular basis…sad to say, but at least I’ve made an effort! I’m guessing from your experiences that you don’t jump on a person who speaks a foreign language who pronounces an English word improperly. A little tolerance goes a long way.

  3. Mr. Sunshine permalink
    May 23, 2010 4:43 pm

    Margie C, I meant my comment to be about French intolerance for people (especially Americans?) who speak anything but French, even when the correct pronunciation happens to be the English one, and making not the slightest effort to understand me, similar to Mr. Fussy’s experiences. I mean, how far apart are “Marlboro,” accent on first syllable, and her INCORRECT “Marlbo-ROH,” accent on last syllable. Personally, I am not only tolerant of non-English-speakers employing English, but I enjoy engaging them.

  4. May 23, 2010 11:12 pm

    Mr. Sunshine-

    A little word from a part time linguist here. The French language has a prosody which strongly urges the speaker of French to stress the final syllable of a phrase, clause, or word. Any linguistic tendency learned from birth is a hard act to shake. As for the, — “I mean, how far apart are Marlboro,accent on first syllable, and her INCORRECT “Marlbo-ROH,” accent on last syllable.” and ” and making not the slightest effort to understand me” — bits of your comment, stress pattern is very important in language as far as determining semantics and meaning goes. A much parroted example is that the verbs from Russian meaning “to piss” and “to write” are differentiated only by which syllable is stressed. I find your whole inference regarding that particular linguistic interaction to be flawed (maybe just misinformed). The simplest of all explanations should be employed before any other, perhaps that particular French woman simply did not understand what you where saying.

  5. Sarah M. permalink
    May 24, 2010 1:13 am

    Ha! It’s funny that you slowed down to explain. Whenever I order anything by its non-English name, I think I speed it up because I’m so embarrassed at my wack accent. “Um… arrozconpolloporfavor?”

  6. Mr. Sunshine permalink
    May 24, 2010 8:45 am

    Mr. Dave, I know, I understand. I guess you had to see her disinterested face. Anyway when I lived in Liberia, everyone said hello in the local language, Kpelle, as “Ba tua.” The problem is that “ba” with just a slight change in tone (a change I couldn’t hear for quite a while), means “penis.” You can imagine peoples’ reaction when I greeted them!

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