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Thursday, November 25, 2010

Brother can you spare a dime?

Americans enjoy their high standard of living by waiting in a bread line (mid 1930s)

There’s an old depression era song that Al Jolson sang called “Brother can you spare a dime?”  When Jolson sang the song in the 1930s a dime was worth a lot more than it’s worth today, about $1.30 in today’s money.  Needless to say, today, during the great recession as the talking heads who make more money in a year than most of the people they’re talking to make in a decade are calling it, giving someone an actual dime won’t do them a bit of good.  Nothing is actually sold for a dime anymore.  When I was a kid the Chinese stores* would sell a single Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup for a dime.  Now they’re worth 35 cents or so and get sold for 50.  Even dollar stores rarely sell anything for less than a dollar anymore. 
So when I was waiting for a train in New Brunswick and a young guy with a thick Brooklyn accent stuck his face up to mine and said “boss, can you give me a dime, my financial situation is real (expletive) up right now and supper* is waiting for me” I felt like I was in some kind of retro time-warp.  Since I knew he couldn’t have been referencing the old depression-era song because odds are better than fifty fifty that he had never heard it, I figured he was asking me for ten bucks.* 
On the surface he was making this request like he was asking his baby sister to pass him a box of cereal, like it was the most ordinary thing in the world.  But a look into his eyes and past his Brooklyn-street posturing revealed that he was truly desperate.  So I asked him how much a dime meant to him, figuring that he didn’t really have the chutzpah (and I mean it in the real Yiddish sense of shocking gall) to ask me, a fellow university student, for ten dollars just before he planned on boarding a train he had no money to pay for. 
He looked at me like he’d call me a moron or worse if he weren’t asking me for money. 
“A dime’s ten boss” he half snarled half sung at me. 
“Ten dollars?” I said, surprised by the incredulousness in my own voice. 
He then looked at me like he’d deck me if he weren’t asking for money.  So I told him that I’d see how much I had and opened my wallet (understand that I was in no way planning on actually giving him five dollars, let alone ten).  And of course, as per the unbreakable axiom of Murphy’s Law, there was one bill in my wallet and it was a “dime.” 
I felt some unexplainable shift of power occur in the universe and before I fully realized what I was doing the bill was in his hand and he was ten feet away barrelling towards the stairs out of the train station. 
“What the –expletive—is you doin’” a black woman yelled at me, chomping on a cigarette that suddenly went out and fell to the ground. 
“Well,” I said, “maybe now someone will give me ten bucks if I need it for a train.”  
“Shit don’t work that way,” she said.  “It should but it don’t.”
She pulled out and light another cigarette, all the while looking at me and said “he should’a come up to me, I would’a axed him where he was gonn’a get d’udder 9.90.  And if he would’a thought from me, he would’a found hisself smashed up against dat train.” 
We both laughed and she told me about her various woes, beginning with her being thrown out of the VA* hospital where she was visiting her husband.  She had bags of food prepared for him that she learned that he wouldn’t be able to eat when she walked into his room and saw that he had tubes down his throat.  In short she had come sixty miles by train to bring him a home-cooked meal just to find out he was too sick to eat it.  She didn’t look too good herself; morbidly obese, unable to keep cigarettes in her mouth due to an incessant hacking cough that was interrupted by occasional wheezing.  But boy was she full of life!
We talked for about ten minutes and despite describing herself as a “tough Trenton ghetto girl” seemed very sweet.  As it turned out her husband’s health was just the beginning of an endless series of personal crises which she spent the whole time telling me about. I listened politely, half laughing and half crying along with her as the stories got sadder and somehow inevitably funnier due to her manner of relating them.  And soon enough I realized that I had given the wrong person the “dime.”  But the people who most need help are usually the last to ask for it and this tough “girl” would be about the last person to ever ask a stranger for a handout. Our conversation ended when her daughter called and soon enough I spotted our train in the distance.   
And as I boarded that train I heard a young man singing “brother can you spare a dime” and could barely recognize my own voice in the cold night air. 
*What the corner stores in some parts of Philly are called.  The one in my neighborhood was run by Koreans.  There is nothing Chinese (or Korean) about the stores except the people who own them. 
*Only New Yorkers say supper to refer to the evening meal in the US.  New Yorkers and especially working class whites from the Bronx and Brooklyn are also the only people I’ve ever encountered who will greet a stranger with “boss” but this may be used elsewhere.  Supper though is a famous Newyorkism. 
*In drug-slang a “dime” is ten, hence a “dime-bag” is ten dollars worth of a drug sold as a package.
*Veterans Administration.  The VA runs hospitals that only serve army veterans.  She was in her early fifties, about the right age to be married to someone who served in the later years of the Vietnam War. 

Sunday, November 14, 2010

World English vs American dialects: or how European intellectuals are making us all sound the same.

Although I spend most of my time as an amateur linguist and as a translator working with Spanish and Yiddish, I’ve never lost my love of my native tongue; English. Since English is the world’s strongest and most prominent language as well as the international lingua-franca of both the business world and academics, many people lose sight of the fact that English is still an ethnic mother-tongue of the English in Britain as well as the first language of hundreds of millions of others around the world. And like almost all languages (but not Israeli Hebrew), English regional variations enable her speakers to pin down where someone is from. English speakers can also often determine a speaker’s social class (in Britain) and (in the USA) their race from their accent. 

Hundreds of millions of people speak English as a second, third or fourth language around the world but most who’ve never lived in an English speaking country speak a fairly artificial academic form of the language that is from nowhere and yet can be understood anywhere. Obviously such people speak English with accents so upon meeting them you can tell quite clearly that they’re foreigners anyway. But even when they write you often realize that the person is not a native speaker because their grammar is too perfect, “with whom am I texting?”!!! or they use a combination of British and American vocabulary “I had spilled some fizzy-drink in my trunk” (which would sound bizarre to both a Brit and an American). There’s nothing wrong with this of course. They’re just missing the experience of speaking an authentic local English that is actually from somewhere.

The phenomenon of “world English” is societal and generational as much as it is linguistic. I’m always amazed to meet people from one European country who have a close friend from a second European country with whom they can only communicate in English despite it being neither of their native languages. Communication in English is the norm even with college educated people of my generation from different Eastern European countries. A generation ago such friendships, business contacts and romances would have occurred in Russian. An even more stunning example of the strength of English is the fact that it is becoming normal in Europe for two people from different countries upon meeting to defer to English, even when one of them speaks the others non-English mother tongue.

With the strength of “world English” and the development of several competing standard Englishes, native regional and dialectal variations of the language are in a precipitous decline. Regional accents are not as strong as they used to be. Grammatical quirks are being leveled out by exposure to mass media and strangely enough, by exposure to non-native English speakers who possess knowledge of a much more normative form of the language. While the average American two generations ago would have known only his own local dialect, today an educated person needs to possess a knowledge of the standard language and knowledge of a local dialect is considered superfluous at best. Although the differences between varieties of English in America are slight compared to variations found within other languages (with the exception of Ebonics/African American Vernacular English which is quite distinct), I still feel that something is being lost with the decline of regional accents. So to highlight some of these accents, especially for speakers of “World English” who use English on a daily basis but mostly communicate with fellow non-native speakers, I’ve found some audio-clips of many varieties of American English. Although Southern American English is mocked both in the US and in Europe (especially because of its association with George Bush), some varieties of these dialects are my favorites and I chose these clips with the additional goal of highlighting the linguistic diversity of the southern states. So without further ado here are some great examples of American accents.

Arkansas accent.

North Carolina accent.

Atlanta Georgia accent

Philadelphia accent. As I mentioned in a previous post, different neighborhoods in Philadelphia have their own accents (just like NYC and Boston). This is especially true among older lifelong residents. This accent could be Kensington, or Fishtown or (a long shot) South Philly. My own accent is closer to a North-East Philly accent with some interference from having lived in New Jersey for four years now. Nonetheless, few if any people from outside the city could distinguish my Philly accent from a South Philly or Kensington accent.

 West Virginia accent. (Speaker is black.)


 The famous Brooklyn accent.


 Canadian accent: Americans and Canadians can generally tell each other apart but some Americans from the northern Midwestern states speak dialects that sound like regular Canadian English, with the only difference being a few hundred telltale Canadianisms. The stereotypical difference is that Canadians pronounce about like “a-boot.” In reality they say “a-boat”, instead of the American “a-bout.” Canadians also pronounce several dozen words like British English. Among them are progress (pro-gress), controversy (con-trev-esy), schedule (shed-ul, not American skedule), and lever (leave-her). Canadian spelling btw is nearly halfway between British and American.

 For a bonus here’s a real Lithuanian Yiddish accent in English. In New York you hear Hasidic Jews who speak English with pronounced Hungarian Yiddish accents but it’s becoming rarer and rarer to hear English with the telltale Litvak lilt. This was an accent I grew up hearing all the time. 

For those of you interested in learning more about English in the United States, the following are some links from a website about a great PBS series on the topic:  
Here is a quiz from PBS with which you can test how well you can locate American accents

Information on Ebonics/African American Vernacular English.