I say to-may-to, you say to-mah-to

I don’t think I have ever told a joke this good. The first time I said tomato in front of the son of my first hosts, he was rolling on the floor with laughter. He could barely help himself and only composed himself enough to beg me to say it one more time. I don’t think he cared a bit that I found his pronunciation of tomato equally funny.

Our habits of communication are made all the more apparent when we travel to different countries. Even within the same language it is staggering how much variation there is between English spoken in the U.S., and that spoken in New Zealand (and I”m sure that spoken in Canada and so on). Speech is peppered with phrases, idioms, and slang unique to the culture and region of the speaker. On the level of microcosm, my good friend studying linguistics tells me, there can be different communication patterns just with in certain neighborhoods. On a larger scale, of course, is the comparison of communication and language between countries. In New Zealand, the English spoken is influenced by the indiginous people, the Maori (say: mow-ree, rhymes with dowry), as well as the colonizing British. To my untrained ear, a lot of the “funny” phrases I hear sound quite British. I’m not sure I can adequately explain this with the written word, but if you’re keen on reading on, I’ll give it a go, royt, okay. Clever if you caught that bit of humor, lovely really. Here is the speedy version: chickens are chooks, parking lots are car parks, and a homsteading property is a lifestyle block. Ground beef (hamburger for you okie folks) is mince meat and beets are beetroot.

Maori is a bit trickier and because most of the cities an many commonly used nouns are Maori, my learning curve has been pretty steep. My first travel stop outside Wellington was Otaki (say oh-tacky, it wasn’t and yes I’m serious about the pronunciation). I caught a ride to Otaki with perhaps my favorite Kiwi thus far an exuberantly friendly woman named Phillipa (Pip for short). Pip lives north of Otaki, and when I asked her where that was, I heard “Man a cow.” “where?” I said, looking around but seeing only sheep. She repeated her statement and I finally figured out her town of origin was called Manakau. Pip could tell I was curious about the Maori names of towns that we were passing by and so she became my tour guide on our drive up the coast. One little village we passed by was Pauatahanui (say: pow-ah-tah-hen-oo-ee). Paua (pow-ah) referring to the shellfish that our gathered on dives and eaten (what we know as Abalone), and tahanui meaning big. So, literally Pauatahanui means, “big shellfish.” An apt name for an ocean side village, I’d say.

Paua diving, I hope will be in my near future, but one thing that is in my near future is more farm work. Mostly pleasant thusfar, there have been some humurous miscommunications as I try to learn the colloquial terms for things that I take for granted. Take a recent job I was set to work on: tying up some raspberry and boysenberry canes (much like tying up tomatoes). This was not so apparent fromt the start, though. I am now staying with Pip on her farm in Manakau and she was trying to explain what she wanted me to do. I was kind of getting the gist and so I asked, “oh, you mean t-posts with twine as a sort of trellis system?” She said back to me, “wire ties.” Thinking she wanted wire and not twine, I said, “sure, we can use wire instead,” and was met with a puzzled look. Now I was thoroughly confused and so I asked her to explain again. We finally figured out that the metal posts I know as t-posts, they call in New Zealand, “waratahs.” It is a Maori word, I think, but I still am not entirely sure where the heck they got to calling t-posts “waratahs.”

Another greater language challenge, is that of learning a completely new language. This is something that I’ve been privy to observing at Pip’s house because she is also hosting two young women from Germany as well as an interesting couple whose children were born in Denmark, but who are themselves from Russia and England. I have beein very impressed with their English, given that it is none of their first language. They communicate with varying degrees of proficiency: the couple has good English and the German girls are still very much learning. I figured I ought to try broaden my communication a bit and so started making conversation at dinner. The first German words I learned, luckily, have equivalent English words. So, fish is fish and orange is orange. Brilliant. I was also taught some Danish: the words for, “hello” “goodnight” “what is your name” and “red porridge,” which I promply forgot.

Clearly, I am not going to become fluent in German, or Danish, or even Maori any time soon. But, I think what I’m beginning to realize is that there is enjoyment to be had in the casual exploration of another language. It may seem silly, but there is no Spanish influence there. After growing up in the Southwest, there is definitely a large part of my vocabulary and slang that is colored by a Hispanic or Mexican culture. I can habla a little bit and say por favor and gracias if needed. Steven Pinker, the well-known Harvard Psychologist, says, “language emerges from human minds interacting with one another.” Intuitively, I could not agree more and am looking forward to having more experiences with new people and languages.



1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. al
    Dec 27, 2011 @ 16:40:31

    Favorite post!!! Loved reading this–very interesting!



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