Tuesday, June 27, 2006
Confusion in any language
Since the incident I wrote about earlier in which I wanted to speak Serbian to a restaurant seating hostess, the Serbian language has continued to try to assert itself in my everyday speech. With no internet at home, I've been frequenting a local cafe with free wireless access for my laptop (free plug: Java Jo's in East Milton Square). Last time I was here, when I got up to use the bathroom and the barista looked my way, I was a split-second from asking, "Mogu u WC?" Another time, someone bumped into me and apologized, and I replied, "Nothing." (I'm not even sure if that's good Serbian; is ništa an appropriate response to izvini?) And all this is nothing next to the effect Serbian has had on my other foreign languages, such as my frustrating tendency, when speaking Italian, to say da instead of sì. Worst of all, though, my English seems to have acquired the feature of Serbian English (srpsko-engleski?) that I found most frustrating on my arrival in Serbia: the use of the phrase "I know." When Serbs say "I know" (znam) it can mean something like "I understand, I follow what you're saying, I'm familiar with that." To an American (at least to me), the meaning is more like "You didn't need to describe that in such detail, I was already familiar with it, you're wasting my time." To make matters worse, Serbs tend to repeat this sort of brief utterance twice, so "Yes, that's acceptable" becomes može, može; "I will do that" is hoću, hoću; and "Yes, I understand" is znam, znam. In Serbian English, this gets retranslated as "I know, I know," which to an American is the expression of someone who's just barely restraining their impatience with your intolerable denseness. Once I worked out the hidden meaning of "I know, I know," I felt an immediate sense of reassurance: the Serbs don't all think I'm a moron after all! My second response was amusement at this sociolinguistic glitch, and "znam, znam" became something of a humorous catchphrase between Meaghan and me. But then, like the kid who makes one funny face too many, my language began to stick that way. It got to the point where Meaghan had to give me a stern talking-to. You know you've crossed over to the dark side when what used to frustrate you in others becomes a bad habit of your own. Now I'm monitoring myself carefully, trying to go cold turkey on "I know" until I can use the phrase as a native speaker would(!). If you're talking to me and get the impression I'm frustrated with you, now you know why. If I really am frustrated with you, I'll try to be extra clear about it.