The Wonders of Language: Norwegians in Brooklyn

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This is the theme that never stops giving. For instance: I mentioned recently, as an off-hand illustration of improbable matchups, "someone from Norway speaking English with a Brooklyn accent." Wouldn't you know, from a reader in Trondheim, Norway:

Actually, I think you'll find plenty of Norwegians speaking English with a Brooklyn accent, although most of them will probably be above 60.

Along the west and in particular the south coast, there was significant two way migration between Norway and the United States, and to some extent this contiuned beyond WW II. Brooklyn was a center, there used to be Norwegian neighbourhoods there. In 1969, my family bought a cottage on a small island on the south coast. The local who sold it had actually been born in Brooklyn just before WW I. His wife's family had also lived in Brooklyn.

Around WW II, the population of this island may have been about 500 - 600. I've seen a photograph from a meeting of this island's social club in Brooklyn during the war, with about 50 persons present. Some will have been merchant marine sailors, some Brooklyn residents.

And, on an aspect of the trend I haven't emphasized (since most items have been about different versions of English spoken around the world), from another reader:

These language mismatches are probably becoming more of a two-way street. Although you highlight many instances of Asians speaking English with curious accents, I have am also the product of this sort of mismatch. I learned "standard" Mandarin, and am rather proud of my Beijing accent. I speak with plenty of strong "shi's" and never hesitate to add an "er" to then end of appropriate words. However, I've spent the past couple of months in Taipei, and I the locals constantly are commenting on my accent. To them, an American speaking with a pronounced Beijing accent is as strange as a the East End-accented Chinese citizen. The global hegemony of language/accent is strongly tied to culture. While China was closed, the softer Taiwanese accent was in. But now that China is open and is flexing its cultural muscles, accent wars are flowing in both directions.

After the jump, from an actual professor of anthropology, an observation on a different kind of mismatch -- or, really, almost-complete fluency.

Donald Pollack, chair of the Antropology Department at SUNY Buffalo, writes:

I arrived in Brazil in 1981, where I lived for several years. In the early days of my stay in Rio de Janeiro, I was directed to Lord Jim's Pub, an English pub/dart bar run by an American ex-pat and his British wife in Ipanema, where many American and British visitors and residents spent evenings drinking English beer, playing darts, and speaking English. One evening we were surprised to find that one of our regulars, a young man named Peter, was in fact Brazilian, and his perfect American, fluent English was the product of an American mother and four years of college in Florida on a soccer scholarship. That accounted for the fluency.

Not perfect fluency, Peter was quick to point out. He told us that he had arrived in Florida a few weeks before the start of his freshman classes, to begin soccer practice with his college team. The second or third morning he was there, living in the jock dorm, he came down to breakfast. One of the soccer players asked a teammate

"What did you guys do last night?"

"We were up late shootin the shit."

At which point Peter jumped in to confess that he was still getting used to the American food, and he was in the bathroom shootin the shit all night himself!

That's when we realized that there are phrases your mother doesn't teach you.

And there was more. Peter told this story to group of about 8 of us at the Pub, and the Americans found it hilarious. I noticed several English members of our little group were smiling politely, but with quizzical looks of incomprehension. So I asked them, did they understand the joke - they admitted that they did not, and we were surprised to learn that this commonplace expression was, apparently, exclusively American. It was not a phrase that was likely to travel via U.S. TV programs - not in 1981 at any rate -- which was the major source of American slang for Brits.
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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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