mercoledì 30 marzo 2011

The Spirit of Language

The Spirit of Language
by Ingeborg Robles 

Judging someone’s language can mean many things. Someone’s way of speaking a language that is not their mother tongue, I mean...

It can be more or less fluent, lack or posses the right words, be grammatically correct, pronounced more or less right and, most difficult, it can be either be idiomatically natural or not. Even if someone has courageously achieved all of that, we might still detect the slightest hint of an accent.

But then, there is one more thing... Lets call it the spirit of the language and let me give you an example.

The other day, as I was drinking my cappuccino in a local Florentine bar (standing, of course, to respect the spirit of the city or country, and for the sake of my wallet!), an elegantly dressed, not-so-young lady walked in and ordered, in a clear and loud voice, the following: "Un caffè alto, per favore, in una tazza, macchiato, e senza schiuma."

Now, that was certainly rich in vocabulary, grammatically super-correct, properly pronounced and even idiomatic. Nor did I, at that point, detect the slightest hint of an accent; and yet something made me pause and look up. It was not just the bright, open smile on that lady’s face which accompanied her order that caught my attention; there was something else...

There it was again, these orders that I had overheard so often in various Starbucks on the other side of the Atlantic, these orders that even here, in this very bar, I can hear many young American students sing out when they compose –  I mean to say: select the toppings for – their bagels, exercising their right to choose just as much as their pursuit of happiness. Orders, seem to be longer to me than the booklists that I used to get for my courses at school in Virginia and even more complicated than a Shakespearian sonnet.

These long sophisticated orders  - what are they not if the true spirit of America?
And no matter how perfect this lady’s Italian was, here you have a perfect sentence in one language resounding loudly with the music of quite another language – or its spirit...

I remember the owner of the bar telling me one day when, to the astonishment of all Italians present, someone (guess from where?) walked in asking for a cup of hot water waving a tea bag brought from home in the other hand.  "If you only knew the kind of requests I have been getting... In the beginning I couldn’t believe it, then I realized, you just have to give them what they want, then they are so happy." Sono tutti bambini, gli americani.“

Well, I take it as a compliment, or as a fair comment coming from someone representing a civilization so much more ancient than ours.

By the way, permit me to say "ours", even if, passport-wise, I have no claim to do so, I may consider myself American thanks to a few beautiful years spent there, and to a deep closeness, let’s say, to the American spirit.

I remember being laughed at in America by a friend of mine for always calling this or that "beautiful", even if it was just the food in the college dining hall. There it was again, this devilish spirit giving away one’s identity even when carrying the mask of a perfectly mastered foreign language...

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