US12 – a common language

We’ve been back from the US for more than a month now, but I’m still thinking about it. Here’s a last blog.

In Americanah (2013), Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie describes how her Nigerian protagonist Ifemelu, living in America, “had perfected, from careful watching of friends and newscasters, the blurring of the t, the creamy roll of the r, the sentences starting with “so,” and the sliding response of “oh really,” but the accent creaked with consciousness, it was an act of will. It took an effort, the twisting of lip, the curling of tongue.”

During our short time there, I felt the opposite. I felt the Americanness around me trying to tug my mouth into a shape that would make American sounds. What I was suddenly conscious of was the Englishness of what was coming out of my mouth. My own act of will was to keep speaking my normal English English. This almost became an act – for example I found myself saying Cheerio instead of Goodbye, which I never do at home.

A lot of the American I heard, I didn’t understand.

Early evening sunshine in the courtyard at Café Rio at Rio del Mar, on Monterey Bay. Here we go hon, says the manager, bringing me a glass of wine. Thanks, I say. Uh-hUh, she says, with some kind of stress on the huh. I can’t understand tone of voice here. I can’t even reproduce what she said.

Men talking on the street in San Francisco:

–   Incredible man, incredible. And are you still doing crustacean?
–   Yeh – my Balkan party.

(It is possible that these were not the words spoken.)

In Russian, words for people and animals behave irregularly in the accusative case. These animate nouns also have an irregular form in American – it is the plural:


On the deck at Daniel’s Broiler on Lake Union in Seattle I ordered octopus. There’ll only be one Santa Claus, is that OK, said the waitress. I wish I’d replied, like Chico Marx in A Night at the Opera, You can’t fool me, there ain’t no sanity clause. Instead I looked at her gone out.

She means there’ll only be one tentacle, said my travelling companion.

octopus tentacle Lake Union Seattle 818.JPG

A last San Francisco story: I went to get my hair cut in the Mission district.  The manageress spoke to a boy sitting in her cutting chair, ten or twelve years old, slowly in Spanish: You don’t speak Spanish? You mama speaks Spanish, your papa speaks Spanish.

My haircut cost $8, plus a $2 tip. In Brussels I pay twice that.

If you spoke Spanish here, if only I knew how to speak it, people would reply in Spanish. Fullness of the Spanish language in the mouth. I was surprised to find that I didn’t want to move house to San Francisco – but I wouldn’t mind moving language.

mural Bartlett St San Francisco 818.JPG


Published by

Paul Hodson

Head of Unit "EnergyEfficiency" at European Commission, Directorate-General for Energy

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