We were sitting together at the end of one of the long tables in the small Carolina restaurant, talking about talking. If the five course meal had its accents, so did our discourse. Two of us hailed from the north; one from the south; one from the other side of the Atlantic.
“Folks down here have a distinctive way of expressing themselves,” one woman said. “Everyone is so friendly, so kind.”
“They do have a colorful way of talking,” I said. “On the puddle-jumper from Charlotte the flight attendant introduced the pilot and co-pilot over the intercom. ‘They fly this plane like they stole it and land it like they own it,’ he said.”
This brought chuckles all round.
“One of the local fellows down here referred to Hurricane Sandy’s devastation of the New Jersey coast as ‘a hot mess.’”
“What’s the derivation of that phrase?”
“I was afraid to ask.”
“Some things are difficult to understand, even when you speak the same language.”
“Perhaps it’s not the same language after all. ‘Two regions divided by a common tongue’ — that sort of thing.”
“During my trek to Nigeria last summer, I found that even though the people spoke English, I had a hard time understanding them. Part of it was the heavy accent. But there was something else, too.”
“Well, I was working in a makeshift medical clinic. Mothers brought their children in for medical evaluations. I would begin by ascertaining the name and age of the child. ‘How old is he?’ I would ask. The mother would stare back at me with a blank look. Then the translator would jump in: ‘How many years he have?’ ‘Ah,’ the mother would say, ‘he have eight years.’ So the next go round I would ask, ‘How many years he have?’ And the mother would look at me, puzzled. Then the translator would pipe up: ‘How old he is?’ ‘Ah,’ the mother’s face would suddenly brighten, ‘he eight years old.’”
“I run into the same sort of problems here in the states when I go grocery shopping,” the British woman explained. “One time at the Deli counter I asked for half a pound of honey ham, thin sliced; and the fellow brought me a small tub of coleslaw. How do you get coleslaw out of thin-sliced honey ham? The next time I took my little girl along to translate.”
“I suppose it’s rather like taking coals to Newcastle,” I said.
This was greeted with a round of puzzled looks. “We don’t get it,” they said.
“Exactly,” I explained.