Thursday, November 8, 2007


I've been reading a new book, Graham Robb's The Discovery of France, which was recently reviewed in the New York Times. It's a historical geography with the conclusion that the idea of a relatively homogeneous, largely French-speaking France is an altogether recent invention. Indeed, the France we see today, both in physical/geographical and linguistic terms, is really a product of change wrought since the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The conclusion that surprised me the most was the degree to which the French language was spoken by so few people. Hence the concept of the regional patois. Among the dozens and dozens of local languages there was Alsatian, Burgundian, Savoyard, Breton, languages indigenous to Brittany, the Pyrenees, the Alpine districts, Normandy, Lorraine, and the Mediterranean coast. Robb notes that in some regions it was possible for a person to travel just a few miles and find oneself completely incomprehensible to the locals. So what's my point?

I started thinking about the different languages and dialects that one hears in New York City on a daily basis. Obviously the linguistic permutations aren't as extreme as those chronicled by Robb. One can travel between Manhattan, Queens, Brooklyn, and the Bronx and make oneself understood . . . although it's not always an easy process, particularly in some of the more ethnically homogeneous enclaves. Walking around the neighborhood of my midtown office I regularly hear Spanish, Hebrew, Yiddish, Russian, French, Arabic, Italian, Polish, Mandarin and Czech. And I'm sure I've left some out that I just can't identify. I even heard a group of teens carrying on a lengthy conversation in pig Latin.

The variations in English are astounding, from the Caribbean-inflected varieties (some of which I have a hard time understanding) to the conversations that blend English with words from the languages listed above. Naturally one also hears the many U.S. regional accents, from transplanted southerners and midwesterners to Bostonians and twangy Texans. I'm also regularly surprised - and often amused - at some of the regional slang that has survived the trip to New York City. The most obvious regionalism - worthy of an articles in the Times at some point in the last couple of years - is the term one uses to order a soft drink: soda, pop, soda pop, and Coke (which is used by some Americans to refer generically to any carbonated beverage, not just the cola variety).

Still there are some funny surprises. Just yesterday, for example, I heard a 40-something guy in an expensive suit, looking every bit the Wall Street-type, carrying on a cellphone conversation in which he referred to the merchandise at some store as "bitchin." "Wow, they had some bitchin stuff in there," he noted, "some way cool hi-def TVs." He sounded as if he had just stepped out of a 1980s teen movie . . . like "Valley Girl," one of Nicholas Cage's early efforts. When was the last time you heard something called "bitchin"?? I'm still laughing over that one. And hey, I've just gone from the historical geography of France to 80s-era American slang. Bartender, I'd like a gin and tonic with a Strattera on the side, please. Perhaps then I'll prove more able to organize my thoughts!

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