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My Mother’s English

By Eulalia Benejam Cobb
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My mother’s relationship with the English language was complicated. She was in her early forties when she was first exposed to it, and after fifty years in America, she still confused “he” and “she.” She knew perfectly well that one is the masculine and the other the feminine pronoun, but when it came to saying them aloud, her brain refused to discriminate between the two. Likewise, she often said “chicken” when she meant “kitchen,” and vice-versa.

She never lost what linguists call the “prosthetic e“–the sound that Spanish speakers often use as a crutch in front of a word beginning with s plus a consonant, as in espanish, espinach, estreet, and so on. My daughters and I found some of her expressions irresistible, and to this day we often resurrect them with a giggle–“I will clean out my closet and give some clothes  to the poors,” we say, or “Thanks God, the rain has stopped.”

A few years after her arrival in the U.S.,  my mother could understand most spoken English, but making herself understood by the majority of the population was a different matter. Aside from her accent, one trait that rendered her disconcerting to Americans of more restrained habits of speech was her way of studding her sentences with metaphors and flights of fancy which required her listener to be constantly on his toes. “The crepuscule last night was apocalyptic,” she would enthuse, not noticing the bewilderment in her listener’s eyes.

Along with the he/she, kitchen/chicken confusion and other errors, however, she deployed a vocabulary that, to English speakers, sounded surprisingly learned. “This soup is insipid,” she would announce; or, “these politicians are puerile and avaricious.” Crepuscule, insipid, puerile, avaricious–all words derived from Latin–are ordinary in Romance languages, and my mother naturally preferred them to their Anglo-Saxon counterparts.

By contrast, my father’s English progressed more quickly and easily than my mother’s. His pronunciation was better (no prosthetic e’s for him), which I ascribe to his musician’s ear. And because he was less florid in his expression, people found him easier to understand.

I am sorry to say that, at fourteen and fifteen, I had little patience with my mother’s difficulties. After all, I was having my own troubles with the language, having to function in a  school that had never seen a foreign student before me. I found my mother’s laments about how hard English was self-indulgent. Why, I would mutter to myself, doesn’t she just get on with it? After all, nobody had forced her to come to the U.S….And I especially resented her constant demands that I translate for her. She wanted me to convey what she said exactly, and I was too young to explain to her that cultural differences rendered some of her expressions, if translated literally, incomprehensible.

The years, and the fact that my mother is no longer here to demand that I interpret her verbal pyrotechnics, have mellowed my attitude. Now that I have lost the ability to remember words, idioms, and spellings that engraved the English language into my teenage brain, I can empathize with her frustration.

To the end, her English contained certain errors and quirks. Many of these she couldn’t help, but there was one that she purposely retained as part of her mission to expand the world view of those around her. She refused to refer to citizens of the United States as Americans, but rather insisted on calling them North Americans. “These North Americans,” she would say, shaking her head, “they think that, from Alaska to Patagonia, they are the only ones who count. That is a little conceited, no?”

my mother, expressing herself to my father

 

8 Responses

  1. 👏👏👏 you make me laugh. When Andrew and I went to Italy decades back and were invited by an Italian family for Christmas Eve dinner… when I asked where all the aunts were. The young man who was our host said they were all in the chicken come let’s go to the chicken and you will meet them

  2. I have a friend who ignores the possessive
    as in Mama House.
    We have adopted it in ours, as in, are you going to come to Mama House this weekend?

  3. That’s an apocalyptic, crepuscular and avaricious picture of your Mom (quite expressive). I appreciate her enhancement of the English language. My niece (age 23 or so) lives in Spain and has a Spanish boyfriend. He came through with her several years ago and spoke English flawlessly and without an accent. He had never lived here or in England. My niece is teaching English to kindergartners in Madrid.

  4. As someone English/Spanish bilingual, I have heard all of this.

    Some people have no ability to listen to themselves, compare it with what they hear from others around them, and correct their own pronunciation. Some make no effort.

    Others’ English or Spanish is perfect grammatically – and still accented, like my Dad’s, with his impressive command of vocabulary in Spanish for engineering and business. Possibly for him, who grew up as the only grandchild who spoke Hungarian, it was one language too many. He and mother took French lessons – his mechanics were impeccable but he never got the accent, her accent was prefect, but she struggled with the learning of grammar.

    And some non-native speakers deliberately and carefully remove traces of accents.

    Humans are fascinating.

    1. So many people think that the only criterion for speaking a foreign language well is to sound like a native, and this discourages them from trying. Politics aside, Henry Kissinger spoke English beautifully, but with a heavy accent.

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