This is the Mean – You are Mean – What Do You Mean? by Sandy Ej
Every word that we say can have two meanings. For example, ‘I spoke’ is to speak and ‘a spoke’ belongs on a bike. Some times, as I have experienced, one word can have two different and sometimes opposite meanings. And, in the spoken language, if you are not spelling the word, you could easily be attempting to say one word and say something totally different just by changing the vowel sounds; they are a, e, i, o, u and sometimes y.
These vowels, a, e, i, o, u, y and the other letters, b, c, d, f, g, h, j, k, l, m, n, p, q, r, s, t, v, w, x, y and z seem to take on a character all of their own when placed on the tongues of English-speaking people, and on those whose mother tongue is something different. Step foot in to foreign soil and you could put your foot in your mouth simply by changing the ‘tone’ of a word. The word ‘girl friend’ said in one way implies a friendship and said in another way would imply that you, as a man, have romantic ties to a particular woman.
I begin this language session with a lesson in humility. Studying in Norway several years ago brought me great joy and incredible inspiration. I brought home many new words from Norway and I am very sure that I left behind some echoes of laughter as any foreigner, inadvertently, has a tendency to do. I didn’t mean to do that. I was sincere in every effort to speak the language correctly and sometimes, things just ‘went to pot’, so to speak.
While on the last leg of my journey, I traveled to Fredrikstad with a classmate from the Hamar Laerehogskole. I was sitting on the train after a long journey and I, then, turned to my friend and colleague and informed her that I was going to wash my face *in* the toilet. What I really meant to say is that ‘I am going to the bathroom to wash my face in the sink’. It had been a long journey. I thought that I should ‘freshen up’ before I exited the train and prepared to meet and greet people I had never met before.
This little accident was made on account of the choice of the wrong ‘preposition’ such as ‘in, out, up, and down’, as well as choosing the wrong noun. I chose the word toilet instead of bathroom. I said that I would ‘wash my face in the toilet’ instead of to ‘wash my face in the bathroom’. This was such a simple error; such an embarrassing situation.
The thought of this little misunderstanding makes me hesitant to try new words, much less, a totally new language. But, as usual, my sense of adventure overcomes my reasoning, and I add one more language to a growing list of languages. I have learned Norwegian, Swedish, Danish, German, Spanish, Portuguese, Sign Language, and Bangla, the language of Bengali citizens.
I can ‘hold my own’ when speaking English and Norwegian. I can understand your private little discussions when you are speaking Spanish and/or Sign Language in close proximity. I can read all of the languages which I have listed to some degree. I do hesitate to actually put in to practice the Bengali words that I know. My question to my Bengali friends is, «How many wars have been initiated by ‘the slip of the tongue?’ » I have often wondered, ‘How do I know if I am saying something ‘kind and caring’ or something totally ‘shocking and/or mean-spirited?’
I decided that I would showcase Bengali words that when translated in to English don’t mean the same thing. In fact, some of the more meaningful expressions that are said in a benign context could, in fact, spark a war or ‘in the least’ a fist fight, or perhaps, a rebellion.
Let’s begin with a simple friendship. I like you. You are a nice person. As I get to know you, I am starting to REALLY like you. I adore you. I admire you. I simply think that you are wonderful. You have now become my very best friend. Things appear to be going along quite smoothly.
In the process of this relationship being established, I think that I am ‘falling in love with you’. Stop. Wait a minute. That’s not what I meant. I love you but, falling in love with you is something totally different. Falling in love is like a snowball rolling down a steep hill and the feeling gets bigger by every turn and can reach a humongous size when it finally gets to the bottom of the hill.
The result is: dating, the proposal, engagement, wedding preparations and marriage. Soon, you will be setting up a household and hearing ‘the pitter-patter of little feet’ following you around the house. I’m not sure if I’m ready for that!
When I first began to study ‘the world wide web’ and ‘social networking sites’, my favorite source of humor is the site called ‘Speed Date’. It just sounds dangerous to me. The term ‘falling in love with you’ could speed up the process of courtship and you could well be on your way to ‘Speed Dating’ and living happily every after at the climax of a Disney-style courtship and marriage. Use the phrase ‘falling in love’ carefully.
The next contestant in the game show ‘What Not to Say’ is the word ‘visit’. It is not that visiting is unpleasant or scary in any way whatsoever. It is that there is this huge misunderstanding that any sort of visit from someone residing in a predominantly Muslim country could be an explosive experience. I apologize if I have hurt your feelings but, it is true.
When a Muslim says that ‘they want to VISIT you’, they actually mean that ‘they want to visit WITH you’. They can be friendly, kind and compassionate people, as well. When a Christian says that ‘they want to VISIT you’, it’s not quite so scary, is it? Perhaps, by stepping over the line and asking a Muslim how they feel when such ‘a loving and respectable’ group of people have successfully destroyed any chance of being portrayed as being ‘loving and respectable’, we could learn a lot from our friends around the world, over majestic mountains and across the deep, blue sea.
I’d like to interject a brief comment with respect to the Norwegian language of which I am very familiar with. When you say that you ‘like’ some one in English, you simply think that they are a pretty good person. In Norwegian, the word that seems to appropriately match the word ‘like’ is the word, ‘liker’. Now, the word ‘liker’ in Norwegian actually means to be ‘head over heels in love’ with a person, in my own words. You have strong feelings for this recipient of your love. Approach the words ‘like, love, and lust’ with caution when in a foreign country.
Since we are on the subject of being friendly, let’s talk about getting to know some one new and the topic of how do you express ‘I’d really like to get to know you’. Because of the complex cultural differences and in light of the language barrier we previously discussed, this could become even more complicated than you would ever imagine. Let’s get started on the ‘right foot’ so as to avoid letting you put your ‘left foot’ in our mouth. A foot in the mouth is a very embarrassing experience to endure.
Start out by stating your name, your country of origin, your occupation, a few hobbies and if you are comfortable with it, you may tell a funny story about your favorite pet or something that made you smile. I am here to tell you that if you ask me, «‘What are you doing right now?» and then, proceed to tell me «I am thirsty.», then, I will tell you that ‘I am busy’ and say, «Here, have a glass of water.» My dear friend, whom I’ll call ‘Lili’, informs me that ‘thirsty’ means that you are ‘interested in a sexual relationship’ either in a realistic sense and/or in a digital sense. Your response to such a simple question might lead up to something totally unexpected.
And, just when you thought that you’ve ‘got a handle’ on a foreign language, we need to talk about societies where words are said in excess, and in societies where words are carefully and concisely stated. In other words, some people use the ‘bare minimum’ when speaking a sentence. It’s not wrong. It’s not bad. It’s just different.
It is like this. In your typical English spoken sentence, there is a sequence of twenty-five words to express the same ‘simple phrase’ that is used in a country such as Bangladesh or Norway in three simple words. I picture a chef with his knife ‘chop-chop-chopping’ words and sentences in to halves and quarters. I am often trying to gather enough pieces of the sentence to make sense of the situation. I am often befuddled by the usage of really short sentences and chopped up words.
Here, I have provided two examples, stated in an exaggerated manner, of how we speak in English, and how a Norwegian or Bengali person might speak. I would like to convey the meaning of ‘we are having an enjoyable conversation and I’d like to continue and if you want to end the conversation could you please let me know at least five minutes in advance’ in English. In Bengali or perhaps, in Norwegian, this is what the sentence would look like: Fine. O.K. Bye.
Meanwhile, I am left sitting in a dark room next to my computer screen wondering what I said to offend the other person. The answer is nothing, and perhaps, the philosophy behind the sentence is ‘don’t mince words’. After a day or two, the conversation starts up again, in a digital sense, and we are happily discussing interesting, engaging, inspiring topics all over again. And, then abruptly, I see the typewritten words, «Fine. O.K. Bye».
The whole situation reminds me of the Country Western song, «Life’s A Dance», by Michael Martin Murphy. It goes like this: Life’s a dance, you learn as you go. Sometimes you lead, sometimes you follow. Don’t worry ’bout what you don’t know. Life’s a dance, you learn as you go. I have said at least once during a conversation between myself and a foreign speaking individual that ‘I feel like we are dancing, and I’m stepping on your toes.’ If you’ve ever learned to dance the ‘Two-Step», you would know what I mean.
Next, in the line-up is the game show, ‘Opposites Attract’. This relates to the fact that since I am living on this side of the planet and you are living on the other side of the planet in Portugal, or Norway or Bangladesh, the time zones are distinctly different. Time zones have a bearing on everything that you might want to say in this case.
I am going to provide an example of a typical conversation that will take place at 8 pm in my country when speaking to a person on the other side of the planet:
Person #1: Good evening, my dear friend!
Person #2: Good morning. What did you have for breakfast? Are you having a good day?
Person #1: It’s been a good night. I am fine. I can’t remember what I had for breakfast. I’m looking forward to tomorrow.
Person #2: This is all too confusing! I’m talking about today and you’ve already been there. Can you tell me what ‘my tomorrow’ is going to be like?
Person #1 Well, I certainly can. Have a good night. I’m going to bed now. Fine. Take care. Bye.
Please leave a comment. And, if you would be so kind as to ‘leave an example’ of how innocent words can spice up a conversation, I’d greatly appreciate it. [Add the comments below, please.]