Babel but for a Question

The Hazards of Assuming

When I taught communications, I regularly emphasized the model of “sender-channel-receiver” for passage of information. At any point along that line, the message (the information) can go astray. The sender has an intention that may not be conveyed clearly. The channel may abbreviate, damage, or delete the message. The receiver may misinterpret the message.

If you’re going to communicate, you must be willing to acknowledge that you don’t know everything … and ask.

I’m surprised how many people don’t. I grew up having to ask a great deal around my house.

My grandmother was queen of the non sequitur. One of my favorite memories is when, in the middle of a conversation about a family vacation or what to have for dinner (I’m not sure which), she suddenly remarked, “Speaking of Sam Snead, did you know Lily Pons died?”

Soprano Lily Pons, c. 1937

As no one had been thinking of Sam Snead, much less speaking of him – never mind Lily Pons, who had as much in common with Sam Snead as poor Nick Schuyler has with the Chilean earthquake – the change of topic required some fancy mental footwork.

My father is now just a bit past the age my grandmother was when she presented these tidbits for family comprehension. He is a good bit more able to stay on topic than she was, but his hearing leaves a lot to be desired, and numbers seem particularly subject to muddling. Thus, a recent conversation about New York ran something like this:

DAD: Well, I think they have done a great job with the monument to 7-Eleven.

ME: The what?

DAD: You know, the statue thing they put up for 7-Eleven.

ME (fearing the appearance of a giant marble Slurpee in Times Square): Who the heck did that? When? Why?

DAD: After the bombing, of course.

Once it became clear that we were talking about 9-11, not 7-Eleven, life became easier – until Dad, laughing good-naturedly over his confusion, added, “Well, they could christen it with their soft drink.” The introduction of 7UP into all this was a bit much, and we closed down the topic.

When my father was hospitalized for heart surgery a year and a half ago, the registered nurse assured me that he suffered from mild dementia. She did not want him to have the surgery, and she was not at all certain that he had the slightest idea what it was about. I disagreed: he and I had asked, and addressed, the questions as clearly as we felt necessary. Besides, his pre-op “dementia,” so far as I could see, was not markedly different from what I grew up with.

More to the point, it made considerably more sense to me than many of my current communications with people who (allegedly) are not demented.

Take my friend who is very farsighted and texts me without her glasses. My SMS that I was on the bus and would be in touch when I arrived met her response “Call me when your off the can.” I don’t know how she got “can” from “bus” (we won’t go into the spelling of “you’re,” she’s a rotten speller). But I knew what she meant.

I was not so fortunate with a recent message from the captain of my dart-league team. Two of our team were  returning from a trip a couple days before a match. I had texted the captain to say I had heard from them. About 14 hours later I received a text from him saying, “Do you know if they are planning on shooting tom?”

A happy and unlikely darts shot

Completely out of context, I had no idea who “they” were, and I was overcome with a vision of a gang lining up against poor Tom – whoever he is – and riddling him with bullets. After some puzzling, I managed to associate the “shooting” with darts rather than Uzis; but I had to text back, asking who “they” were and who Tom was. It turned out he was speaking of our teammates, and he was asking if they were planning on shooting darts “tomorrow.”

To the narrative mind, the world of SMS can be a great bother. Even email and social media postings are a challenge. They come out of one person’s context and dive recklessly into another’s, with no apparent consideration that the recipient might not be dwelling in the chambers of the sender’s mind.

A week ago, a friend posted for his Facebook page status “Beer raids. Seriously? Is this Prohibition or Stalinist Russia?” None of us had the slightest idea what he was talking about. Fortunately, we asked – and were introduced to a barely covered story about how the Pennsylvania State Police are using taxpayer dollars to go after “unregistered” beers in Philadelphia-area bars.

Add a language barrier and geographical distance to the mental-distance equation, and the fun really begins.

I am friends both on and off Facebook with an engaged couple, a Swedish man and Norwegian woman, who live in Norway. I met them both while they were living and working in Philadelphia, along with other Norwegian and Swedish friends who are now in Norway; and, one way and another, I started teaching myself a bit of Norwegian (and less Swedish). I have several dictionaries for each language, but I generally rely on my computer dictionary when I am reading either nation’s news or short messages.

Dubious dinner …

Mid-February, the man posted on Facebook (in Swedish) : “Har fått lodder ikväll!” A quick consultation of my dictionary provided the peculiar interpretation that he was celebrating having a certain kind of fish (capelin or smelt) in the evening. Such enthusiasm over fish in Norway seemed a bit odd, but I went with it and suggested with “Mmm!” that the fish must have been good. He responded (again in Swedish) that, no, it was a different type of “lodder.”

Back to the dictionary – and to utter mystification. The closest I could come was that perhaps he had won the lottery. This did seem to merit celebration, so I emailed my congratulations to the woman.

Meanwhile, she answered (in Norwegian) my Facebook posting with “På norsk heter det også ragsokker.”

My Norwegian is good enough that I didn’t need a dictionary to translate, “In Norwegian, they’re also called rag socks” – which did not come up in the dictionary program for “lodder.” My mind went on the family hunt for meaning. Did the fish taste like rag socks? Had I been wrong about the excitement behind the exclamation point? Perhaps it was fury rather than enthusiasm, at being served fish that tasted like sorry old socks for dinner.

Maybe I should have inflected that “Mmm” the way a Lutheran minister did when she spoke about sin….

… or fuzzy footwear (or both)?

Inquiry revealed that we were, in fact, talking about rag socks.

I love reading about – and experiencing – linguistic challenges. It’s why the experiences of “Swedetalker” Patrick Reilly, a native of Ireland learning Swedish in Malmö, were part of my regular reading at the online news site The Local (Sweden’s News in English). I could wholly sympathize with Reilly, remembering my own happily near-fluent Spanish conversation with a storekeeper in Barcelona – until I stumbled asking for orange juice (jugo de naranja) and came up with a request for an “orange game” (juego de naranjas).

The challenge of communicating in another country’s language is also what gets me past the barriers in my native English, made greater than ever by today’s slew of acronyms and abbreviations, SMS lingo, professional jargon, impulsive emails and social media posts, and badly edited Web sites. The experience of stopping, thinking, investigating, and asking is one that language training (or growing up in my house) drills into you.

Hence, you don’t send a out cover letter for a Web content editorial job explaining that you have great familiarity with the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, nor with the Canadian Mathematical Society. You convince them that you are familiar with a content management system – the other kind of CMS.

It may be a humbling experience at first, but I highly recommend asking over assuming.

I’m still working on it. :)

N.B. – Be assured, I am aware that any of you using Google’s translation program have had your share of enjoyment, frustration, and interruption with my blog and any number of other pages on the Internet. My attempt at a sympathy message in Norwegian produced Google’s unfortunate opening “So missing your sin,” rather than “So sorry for your loss.” (I did fix it in time, with a lot of double-checking.) I’ve been there.

2 thoughts on “Babel but for a Question

  1. Susan

    Erik and I were visiting Costa Rica many years ago, and we found ourselves in Quepos on the Pacific Ocean. It’s a “party town” for the hippie and granola-head set. The town was situated at the base of mountains where the famous Terrazu coffee means are grown. We had the best coffee of our life at a cafe in Quepos, where the townsfolk greeted us as “the dancers”. There was a little local newspaper at the cafe which was written by American expatriates. One of the daily columns concerned amusing language mis-haps and mis-understandings experienced by the expatriates. The one story that really got us laughing was the story of an “enterprising” (read: stoned hippee) American who decided to make some side money by printing up T-shirts. Unfortunately, his Spanish was not so good. I don’t speak Spanish myself, so I’ll probably get it wrong, but you’ll get the point. He saw that the Pope was making a papal visit to Costa Rica and was going to draw hundreds of thousands of spectators who undoubtedly wanted to memorialize His High Holiness’ visit with a T-shirt. So the enterprising American makes a very large order for T-shirts saying in Spanish “I saw the Pope”. When the boxes of shirts arrived, one of his Costa Rican employees came to him, shirt in hand, and asked the meaning of the Tshirt. Why does it say “I saw the potato”? He asked. Apparently, the American used the Spanish word for potato (“el Papa”) instead of the proper one for the Pope (“le Papa”).

    • Joanna Mullins Post author

      I won’t speculate on the hippie’s spiritual background; suffice it to say, he wasn’t Lutheran, as even we haven’t confused the pope with Mr. Potato Head … in any language. 😀

      On a similarly ecclesiastical typographical note, one of my early jobs as an editor/proofreader was to go over the hyphenations of the Spanish-language insert to the old Lutheran Church in America’s news magazine. Why? Because all too often, incorrect hyphenation meant that a line of type would start with foul language … and people WILL skim….

      Along the lines of your great story (though, thankfully, not as expensive): in Norway, I learned that “pute” is the Norwegian word for “pillow.” It sounds exactly like “puta” in Spanish, which means “whore.” To hear a Norwegian struggling with the English word repeatedly assure me that I could “just throw the pute on the sofa” was almost more than I could stand.

      I really do love languages!

Comments are closed.