- Category: Family
- Written by Jim Dee
Anyone out there ever attempt to reverse-engineer a language? I mentioned something in passing during my last post that I'd like to expand on a little. I'd mentioned how Americans tend to speak only English. Oh, sure, many people study a few years of something in school (usually German, French, or Spanish), but relatively few people here can truly communicate in any other language. Had I thought early on of the mischievous possibilities this fact implies, perhaps I'd have invested more time in learning languages. It would have been great to learn something like Cantonese or Hindi or Gaelic in my small backward town. Imagine how extraordinary it would have been to be able to communicate with a select few friends without anyone else being able to understand. Even with my severely limited German, I recall having a few basic conversations with my sister over the years when we didn't want to say something in front of our parents.
During my last few years of college, a girl fromSri Lankacame to study at my school. Let's call her Kay.Like me, Kay was an English major.We wound up in many of the same classes and also worked at the "writing lab" together. (The writing lab, by the way, was the place where all of the moron football jocks would come expecting people like me to rewrite their term papers. You wouldn't believe the idiots our Universities graduate each year in order to keep these mouth-breathers eligible for sports.) Anyway, Kay and I became fast friends and, once I got to know her a little better, I set out over the course of a few weeks to meticulously catalog numerous key words from her other native language, Singhalese (aka Sinhala or Sinhalese). In addition, I paid close attention to verb conjugation and proper word placement within a sentence.(For example, they might phrase an interrogative as "May I that apple eat?" instead of our familiar way of forming a question.) Once you learn the hang of this, it becomes easy to substitute your own words for various devious purposes.
So, to start, I'd say something like, "Now, Kay, if a man wanted to kiss your hand, how would he say 'May I kiss your hand?' in Singhalese?" She'd then tell me.
Then, later, I'd say, "Ouch, I hurt my butt on that chair. Say, how would you say 'butt' in Singhalese?" She'd then tell me. (By the way, that word is "puka.")
So, in no time, I could easily whip off phrases such as (phonetically) "emBEEnuh MAHgay POOkuh," which means "kiss my butt." However, I always did like to take things to the next level.So, I built up quite a vocabulary (using the innocent technique described above) that included (in alphabetical order) the words: between, big, bone, butt, hello, hole, hot, inside, juicy, kiss, may I?, melons, my, please, wiggle, will you?, you, your. Plus, her dad called her "chooti," which means "little one" (another word I routinely employed for comic effect). Simply imagine the almost unlimited possibilities, all perverted, that small set of words allows. I never tired of walking places with her and, within earshot of many people, saying something completely awful out loud.Instinctively, she'd cringe and look around to see if anyone understood. She could never believe that such disgusting things were being said and no one was the wiser.
One day, we went toColumbiaUniversityto meet her boyfriend and bum aroundNew Yorkfor the day.The guy lived on campus with a group of Sri Lankans. She told me to greet them all in Singhalese with something shocking, when I got there. I remember walking into that room any laying some really lewd statement on them all. They stared back in disbelief, not really getting the joke. I just looked at them and said, "What? Kay said that's how to say hello in your language."
Years later, my wife and I visitedSri Lanka, staying with Kay for a week or so. I held off on the sick comments around her family, of course. Her father, a retired general, wouldn't have appreciated that sort of thing too much. What I found particularly funny, though not really surprising, was that all of the terms I'd chosen (e.g., melons, bone, etc.) are indeed common slang terms for the various body parts. So, not only were all of my sentences grammatically correct, they fit in perfectly with the slang used in their country. Kay's boyfriend (now her husband) was impressed. "My God, man," he said. "That's exactly how people talk."
So, that was a lengthy footnote to my previous post. It's a bit off topic from my recent thread of stories, of course. Another thing that came to mind during the writing of my last post (and some of this one) was the idea ofAmerica's incredibly pervasive influence on the rest of the world. The Sri Lanka trip reminded me of some funny stuff that perhaps I'll post at a later date.
Below, are the original comments on this post. Additional comments may be made via Facebook, below.
On March 16, 2006, wrote:
You better write your book before I write mine. Although we`re different ages, and from different places, (I`m from Boston), our lives seem remarkably similar. I started a more personal blog, but gave it up to save the world. I, too browse the blogworld, and most of it is difficult reading at best. You`re a breath of fresh air.