I can’t really speak any language apart from English. Not well, anyhow. Whatever French or German phrases I can cobble together are halting, awkward, absurdly accented, incorrectly conjugated and have about a 1/3 chance of having the right genders. In Spanish, I can almost order dinner, but I find emphatically pointing at menu items more effective. English, though, I can do. From high-speed debate spreads to UT instructors purporting to speak the language but showing little evidence of mastery, I’ve developed an ear for extracting the phonemes of Shakespeare’s language out of the unlikeliest places.
I’m reminded of a feat of English-to-English translation I achieved several years ago. My coworkers and I, a handful of young GIS folk mostly just out of college or technical school, were enjoying lunch in the breakroom when Victoria, a petite and quiet Indian vegetarian, asked Julie, an athletic and somewhat provincial blonde from east Texas about the latter’s veggie-filled lunch.
“Oh, it’s that Chicken Wah-lah, from HEB. In the freezer section y’know?” Julie replied
“It has chicken in it?” Victoria looked confused, seeing no meat present
“Naw, you have to add it in. It doesn’t come with any.”
“How is it a Walla then?”
“It means like, ta-da”
“Oh, I don’t think I’ve heard it like that before…”
Their exchange continued for a little longer, back in forth, two ships passing in the linguistic night, before I saw Julie glance over at me in an attempt to make sure she was making sense.
“It’s Chicken Voilá,” I said, emphasizing the Voi and the lá,”as in French for there it is.”
“Ahh…,” they replied in chorus
“So it’s supposed to jazz up chicken for presentation as an entrée,” I noted,”and not a Wallah, in charge of the chicken.”