Monday, May 4, 2015

Language Interference

Immigrants all over the world suffer from it: they can no longer speak a pure sentence in their native tongue.  Over time, bits and pieces of the local language invade their speech until it becomes a hybrid language only understandable to their children and fellow immigrants, a personal “Creole.”
The first foreign element to sneak it is vocabulary, generally local (and important) institutions.  Please note the following phrases heard in various places in Israel:
Il n’avait pas au beit merkahat.  
Пошел в купат холим.  [Poshel v kupat holim]
I spent six months at the Mercaz Klita.
For the ignorant, the beit merkahat is a pharmacy; kupat holim is the medical clinic; and the Mercaz Klita is Absorption Center.

To be fair, this invasion goes both ways. Our native language forces itself into our version of the local language.  One of the classic mistakes by English-speakers in French, one that eludes a rather surprising response especially for females, is the literal translation of the term I am full into Je suis pleine.  The French reaction may be to look at the belly and say politely “congratulations” since that phrase in French means I am pregnant.

Surprisingly, not all of the pratfalls autocorrect over time.  I still, after 25 years, cannot always recall that the English expression I ate it (meaning I paid the price) is not אכלתי את זה  [achalit et ze] but instead אכלתי אותו  achalti oto].  So, immigrants continue to mangle their new language.

Moreover, applying roots from one language and grammar from the other language, immigrants create their perfectly logical (to them anyway) vocabulary.  My father loves his creation obviousment, made up of the English root obvious and the French adverb suffix (equivalent to the English “ly”) ment.  No such French word exists in Le Petit Robert, affectionately known as “Little Bob” but actually a French dictionary, but who cares? We understand him.

All this give and take means that over time immigrants create their own personal language, fully understandable to a select few.  The process is called language interference but I would prefer to label it cross pollination since the result is a magical and unique.  On exhibit, I present one of my mother’s classic sentences to her mother, containing no less than three languages in no more than five words: pick up a bissel pain – or for those who don’t understand this Creole (English, Yiddish and French, respectively), pick up some bread. Now that is a thing of beauty!

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