Thursday, 30 October 2008

MULTIPLY Creative Challenge #25: Something in a foreign language

Main Station Solothurn

This is a photo of our main railway station belonging to the town of Solothurn in Switzerland. Railway Stations are really places where you need a few foreign languages. Peoples from all over seem to meet at railway stations. When I saw the idea on this challenge I realised that I am just a bit restricted with one word or phrase. My whole life from the age of 20 has been compiled from a mixture of foreign words, but let us go to the beginning.

I was born and brought up in England with English speaking parents, so you develop a mother tongue, in my case English. I must add being a citizen of London the English we spoke was not exactly Oxford English, but something called cockney, restricted to the inhabitants of the East End part of London. I quickly learned that a road was not a road, but a "frog and toad". The stairs were known as the "apples and pears" and having a "decker at the black and white" was reading a newspaper based on the rhyming slang we have and other strange words. Up to now everything under control, after all it is english, but a bit of a twisted english. I would add that the letter "h" does not exist in cockney, for instance the word "happy" would be pronounced "appy", but we are still in England and I did have a mother tongue.

Things do not always turn out as we want and in my case they did and did not. At the age of twenty I sort of emigrated to Switzerland. I wanted to work and live abroad and learn the languages. Armed with school knowledge of French and German as well as a little bit of Italian (actually a bit more Italian as I did meet a couple of Italians in various London dance halls) I arrived one day in Winter in the town of Zürich where I lived for two years.

And now we get down to the foreign bits of the language. I learned that the German word for "no" was "nein". I think most people have that as a basic German word, but in Switzerland "nein" becomes something like "Nei" so that was the beginning of learning foreign languges. I was a few weeks in Zürich and was listening to a conversation in the tram between two Swiss. Every sentence seemed to end with the words "nit wahr" (isn't it) or "oder?" (or?). I found this strange that the Swiss always seemed to need a confirmation from the other person of what they said. They did not wait for the confirmation but just carried on. I then discovered that what the Swiss speak as the German language is not the German language as the Germans know it, but a dialect, only really to be understood in Switzerland. I then found out that nearly every area in Switzerland has their own dialect. This does not mean that the Swiss do not understand each other, they do because they understand each other's dialect, and in this connection know which part of Switzerland the others come from. I would add that at school the children are encouraged to speak "high" German, the sort of German spoken in Germany, otherwise no-one in the world would know what they were talking about if they could only speak their dialect.

As I said I spent two years learning the way things worked in the Swiss German language in Zürich. I then moved on to the area where I now live called Solothurn and have been here now forty years. The people in Solothurn speak their own dialect which is again different to that from Zürich. In comparison it seems the people here speak a lot slower than those from Zürich.

French is also spoken in a good third of Switzerland, even a bit more so French has got itself mixed in a bit with the Swiss German. The word for thank you in German is "Danke", but the Swiss tend more to use the word "Merci" which shows the French influence. We then also get the combination of "Merci viou mau" which is Swiss German for the German expression "Danke vielmal" which actually means "Thank you very much".

So the Swiss German language has been infiltrated by the French, but there are also a few Italian words around. You can say goodbye in many ways, but the Swiss Germans tend to say "adieu" from the french, or "ciao" borrowing the italian word for hello and goodbye.

My own situation has resulted in the fact that I have no mother tongue any more really. It is supposed to be english, but I speak swiss german with my husband and children. My husband and sons can speak English but they seem to keep that when I have a visitor from England. With me they speak Swiss German. I work as an export clerk having contact with people all over the world. I speak French to the french on the telephone, Italian with the italians and english with the rest. Through my fascination for foreign languages I did learn Russian for twelve years, but am out of practice. Did you know that the word "bistro" for a coffee bar comes from the Russian word for "quick"? I didn't either until I started learning Russian.

We have a town 25 kilometers down the road to my town called Biel. But no, not really, it is called Bienne. So ok, it is called Biel and/or Bienne. This is because it lays near to the language border meaning that 60% of the people living their speak German as their natural language and the other 40% speak French. Even the street names are in two languages.

I will now come to an end as I could rave on about the different languages in my life for pages and pages. I just don't have a mother tongue any more, in my head there is a mixture of everything. Just don't ask me how I dream, I have to translate my dreams myself to know what they are about.

As a last photo, here is the main station of Bern, the capital town of Switzerland (they speak a very nice homely Swiss German - it somehow has its own rhythm).

Main Station, Bern

Creative Challenge #25: Something in a foreign language

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