Friday, July 16, 2010

I Speak Amurican

It never occurred to me that I was speaking English. People speak Spanish. They speak Chinese. They speak Turkish. They may speak English with an English accent (which as I have been lovingly informed, apparently they are not the ones speaking with an accent (the language, I am told is called English after all not American)). You are probably sitting there thinking; “Geez Chris, what an amazing revelation! I didn’t know that I was speaking English! Thank you for bestowing this nugget of knowledge on me! You are my best friend… and incredibly handsome… and awesome…”
Okay… I may have known that I spoke English. I just wasn’t always conscious of the fact that the words I spoke or the thoughts I thought were in a language. To me it seemed like the world just worked in English. We know that a tree is a tree, it may be called an ağaç in Turkish or a árbol in Spanish but we can be certain that the tree-shaped structure I see out my window is, in fact, a tree.
I didn’t start thinking these thoughts until I lived in a country that functioned in another language. In Istanbul, those tree-shaped things actually are ağaçs they are merely called trees in English. Mind-blowing, I know. I could grasp the fact that I did not understand the secret code language that everyone around me was speaking, but surely they could understand me when I spoke the language that the universe works in. If they could not understand it, I would simply speak louder and slower.
Being an American, I think in the back of my mind I just assumed that I spoke a meta-language, a sort of way of talking that I assumed must even be the way God speaks. The place I grew up did not have a culture or a language (actually rural Arkansas has a very distinct culture and language). It was just simply they way the world worked. In America, I live in the real world and in other places they have funny things like culture and customs and languages. The way I interact with other people in my hometown is not a part of culture it is just the way people act. Central Asian people do things like take their shoes off before they enter a house, Russians won’t shake hands over the threshold of a door, or British people drive on the wrong side of the road and mispronounce lieutenant because they have a ‘culture.’ In America, the customs we have and even the way we think are not part of a culture; it is just the way the world works.
I was shocked to hear someone in the little English village I live in tell me that they could hear my accent. “Why no, you foolish Brit,” I wanted to inform them, “You are the one speaking with an accent, I am speaking the way people actually talk.”
Now I realize that I am breaking new ground here with the discovery that we are speaking English and that there is an American culture. You can send your royalty checks my way. I just think it was an interesting self-revelation. Like when you hear your voice on an answering machine, but on a grander scale. ‘Wow, that is the way I sound to the rest of the world, and it is kind of weird and unique.’
Now that I have blown your mind, (or you may have already known that you speak English), I will leave you with this. In Cappadocia, Turkey we had an old Turkish tour guide who was showing us around the underground cities and caves. He had a very thick mustache. (That is not part of it, it was just a very nice mustache.) At one point he started imitating tourists from different countries. Japanese people waddle out of the buses like penguins, say ‘oooh and aaah’ take a picture and then waddle back onto the bus. Italians apparently sing all of their observations. When asked what American tourists are like, he stuck out his chest and strutted around saying “Show me this. Show me that. I own everything!” It was like we are looking at the rest of the world like fish in an aquarium. (Actually he was very offensive and quite rascist.)
We have a place, as Americans, in this world and in history. And I typed this entire blog post in the English language, with an American accent.

1 comment:

  1. I had a revelation kind of like this just yesterday. I was at the bazaar near my home and speaking the local language. I struck up a conversation with a young guy who happened to speak some English. He was trying with all his might, but he had bad grammar and a thick accent with big hand motions. As I walked away I realized that the way he speaks English is probably very similar to the way I speak his language- bad grammar, bad accent, and big hand motions.

    And, I have to say your Turkish friend may not be far off in his assessment of Americans. In the museum here there are several gifts that other countries have given to the president of this country. There were nice books, plaques, and other quality gifts. The US gave a shovel of the groundbreaking ceremony of our own embassy. Sweet.