Being Somewhere Else

When we came back after two weeks in Ireland we went to the post office to pick up our mail. Nothing brought home to me how much we were in our own place than hearing a person in a public place address us with an appreciable Minnesota accent and help us with a matter of more than citizenship. The matter of ones own mail is a matter of residency. It was a matter keenly absent after two weeks in Ireland.

I have seldom encountered people more friendly than the Irish. There is, however, in the accent which I realized with a sense of loss in Chicago I would no longer hear regularly, there was in that accent something different, behind the friendly eye the distinction, the distant closed door of meeting a stranger. After two weeks of European ways, of Irish ways, of being a foreigner although anglophone, the sense of belonging that I experienced at the post office in Minnesota came as a strong emotion. One of the best things about traveling, my wife observed on that occasion, is that it makes you glad to be home.

It is a curious sense of belonging—or of not belonging—one gets; it depends on so many things. Primarily it depends on language since ways of saying are ways of thinking. Having the same habits, knowing the tacit agreements, the conventions, an unconcern about procedures and approaches play into it too. But I think ways of speaking are the most obvious ways of knowing you belong.

When you go to Mexico you are no longer among anglophone strangers. It is interesting to see one of those shut doors behind the eyes open when you speak Spanish to them in a pretty mild American accent and with bits of expression not based on alien constructions. I do not know what does it more: the ability to know which consonants must not be overpronounced and which ought to sound forth or the prolongation of vowels. (For example, most Americans will turn the first syllable of soldado into a sound something like the English word soul. They will make the second D as prominent as the first one. In some places, you can get away without even pronouncing that second D, especially in the Colombian highlands. The consonants in Spanish are always playing tricks like that. Unless you know it naturally, it requires too much thinking to make scrupulous pronunciation and conversation simultaneously feasible. Of course, not many care all that much. Nor is this trick of writing and speaking limited to Spanish; this also happens in English. It happens because writing is a limitation of speaking; we do not really have as many letters and combinations of letters as we have sounds, and we do not want as many complications in our writing. I was listening today and noticed how little the T in think is pronounced—“I ’hink so,” or “I ’ink so” being a pretty common way of pronouncing the word; the T is overpowered by the consecutive Is. Nor is it lazy as some who are wont to overpronounce things giving a sort of priority to the written over the spoken word might be inclined to believe. Kinglsey Amis has some interesting words for such people.)

The great difference between Spanish and English is in the pronunciation of the vowels. I have a mild accent because my vowels get a little rounded, like milk that is not entirely sweet, giving me a vague accent. Fortunately this is not so noticeable in short pronouncements. When I said: “Quiero un poquito del elote aqui,” the woman thought I spoke Spanish well enough to remark about it. Had I said: “Quiero un poquito del elote aquel,” she might have asked me if I were a Mexican.

If you put an idiomatic expression in without any self-consciousness—most foreigners using an idiomatic expression, it seems to my observation, manage to broadcast that what they are saying carries some mental peculiarity by the way they say it—you might fool a native speaker. I did not say “un poco” which would have done and might have been taken literally. “Un poquito,” you see, with the diminutive, gives your request a polite modesty; it is a certain colloquial deference that is calculated to fill your plate. Had I thrown in the remote demonstrative, rather than pointing and using the adverb which combination is only semi-verbal, depending as it does on the gesture, I would have shows greater linguistic ability, the powers of one proficient. While these things I explain seem elaborate when they are articulated, I do not think they are ever entirely lost; they are a tacit part of everyday speaking.

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