The Language-Mismatch Chronicles Go On

I am catching up with the influx of marvelous stories on this topic. (Most recently here; previously here.) Several samples below and after the jump. But first of all, a time-sensitive item, since it refers to several webcasts that will be online only for a limited time.

Thanks to a tip from the author of the UK-based Wombat Diet site, I've had the privilege of listening to the Scottish poet and writer Jackie Kay read from her memoir, Red Dust Road. Kay, who is the same age as Barack Obama, has an ethnic background roughly similar to his. Her father was a graduate student from Nigeria, enrolled in courses at the University of Aberdeen; there he met the woman who became her mother, a local (white) Scottish nurse. They weren't married, and Kay was given up for adoption and raised by a Scottish couple in Glasgow. That's Kay below (picture from this site.)

Thumbnail image for jackie_kay_lge.jpgHere is the language point: If listen to Kay read from her book, at the BBC's site here, you are bathed in a Scottish accent so powerful and recognizable that you imagine you're watching Trainspotting, or Gregory's Girl -- or for that matter, Braveheart. As the author of Wombat Diet put it, in a note he sent me:

"From her Scottish accent you don't expect her to be black, but when she switches to Nigerian speech in the narrative, overlain with Scottish... it's magic. The book will be huge. It's funny, poignant, moving and just a delight to listen to. I want the audio book."

I agree.The first 15-minute reading, here, is up only for another day or two. Listen to it and the next, as prelude to number three, when Kay tracks down her biological father in Nigeria and has .... quite a number of surprises. He is "barking mad," as she says, which only begins to describe things.

Now, a few more reader accounts:

A solicitor for MassPirg (Naderite organization) arrived at my door.  He appeared to be a handsome, tall Japanese with long hair and a thick and deep Scottish accent, but upon my polite inquiry turned out to be Burakumin, a Japanese minority, raised in a Scottish neighborhood in Sydney, Australia.

From a reader in the South:

I have often had a rush of pride when I observe how people from all over the world can come to the US and rapidly become as authentically American (including the accent) as those of us who had the good fortune to be born here. One incident has always been particularly memorable. I live in Atlanta, where a non-regional accent is the norm, even for natives. Late one night at an intown convenience store, the south Indian gentleman behind the counter began speaking with one of the deepest south Georgia drawls I have ever heard in metro Atlanta. We had a brief conversation during which he pointed out with obvious pride his pickup truck in the parking lot ("F150 with the leather package"), that he uses to tow his bass boat. He also mentioned how he put a cooler between the front seats to keep his dip (chewing tobacco) cool while he drove. He was as they say, country as corn-pone. Since that time I have seen again and again how immigrants or children of immigrants living in rural areas quickly become good-ol boys, accents and all.

One more:

When I lived in Little Rock in the early 1980s, the Vietnamese Chinese refugees who ran the two pretty good Chinese restaurants in town would sometimes say "Goodbye y'all" to us as we left the establishment. Of course I was a carpetbagger, so Southern accents sounded cute/quaint on their own, but doubly cute/quaint in this context.

In a less cute/quaint vein: if you recall, Ian Fleming (whose racial attitudes were prewar colonial) had some characters in one of his books whom he referred to as "Chigros," i.e., residents of the Caribbean of mixed Chinese and African heritage. Which led one parodist, the author of Loxfinger and Matzohball I believe, to introduce "Sweegros," persons of mixed Chinese and Swedish heritage, who made comments such as "Yah vee are gonna go upside your head" or something like that. Not particularly funny, either then or now, but pertinent to your recent post.
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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.


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