MARK TWAIN once complained that the “idiot Parisians” failed to understand their own language when he spoke to them in French. Everyone who has been abroad knows the challenge of coping with languages not his own, and I do not mean just the blank stares of incomprehension which can result from trying to order a meal somewhere off the beaten tourist path. Sometimes the traveller finds himself in more complicated situations than that. Two anecdotes told at a social gathering mostly of scholars at the National Humanities Center here in North Carolina illustrate my point. One of the stories was mine, but I will begin with the other.
A learned Scottish friend recounted to us how once he was able unexpectedly to communicate in an unfamiliar language. Prior to a visit years ago to his daughter and family in Kenya, he took a brief course in conversational Swahili. Not knowing Swahili and not really expecting to learn it in a short time, he did this mainly for his own satisfaction as a linguist who was already fluent in a half-dozen languages.
Soon after his arrival in Nairobi, his daughter invited friends over to meet him. The press of her guests that evening became a problem; some had seating available but others had to stand. By chance one of several canned phrases his instructor back in Edinburgh had required him to memorize was the query, “Are there enough chairs?” With feigned nonchalance and secret delight he looked around and casually posed the question in Swahili.
This performance, brief though it was, amazed his daughter’s guests. The son-in-law, impressed even though he was fully aware of his visitor’s intellectual reputation, turned to his wife. “You see? You have been here for years and don’t speak Swahili at all, while your father only just arrived and already he’s fluent!”
After the Humanities Center scholar told this tale to the laughter of all of us in his hearing, not to be outdone I recounted one of my own experiences with language in a foreign setting. Because I am less learned than he, however, or perhaps less lucky, my story shows how we can fall into trouble when trying to speak a strange tongue.
My husband was assigned to the U. S. Embassy in Cairo back in the 1970s. For an hour a day during those several years that we lived in Egypt, I studied colloquial Arabic, a notoriously difficult idiom for Westerners to learn. A reserved, dignified Egyptian professor from the American University in Cairo taught our small class made up entirely of women. We learned stock phrases and sentences much in the manner of the learned Scot’s rote Swahili training. Some of the Arabic sentences we memorized were extraordinary in translation, however, not potentially useful like the inquiry about whether the room had enough chairs. Rather, we learned for the most part pronouncements and questions that one would never normally use in English. Several of these odd expressions I still remember and can rattle off in Arabic without a hitch. “What business is it of yours, you cold fish?” and “Come out from there, you sly one!” are two of them. For use as an imprecation, especially when driving in the horrendous Cairo traffic, our instructor taught us “May your house fall in on you!”
After months of study, I watched for chances to use my limited Arabic for more than greetings and the simplest market inquiries. We had learned that the language is stylized, however, and not just any old seemingly appropriate statement or reply would do. The reply had not only to fit the moment, but also to conform to convention. As an example cited by our teacher, when the Cairo electricity went off, as it often did, a host or business proprietor affected felt obliged to offer regrets. The stock response in Arabic to such an apology, the professor told us, was the reassuring statement, “Never mind, your light is sufficient.” To me that had a charming ring, unlike some of the more eccentric expressions.
One day I was browsing alone in a shop in the souk , the famed Cairo bazaar. The lights abruptly went out, leaving me in near darkness. The shop’s owner, a courtly man with a thin moustache, approached and apologized in English, “Please excuse the inconvenience, madam, I am dreadfully sorry.”
Aha! My day had come, I thought. It was fully the equal of the Scot’s opportunity to show off his fragment of Swahili. I therefore replied to the shopkeeper with barely-controlled eagerness, in my best Arabic, “Never mind, your light is sufficient!”
To my surprise, there followed a long, pregnant pause. He looked at me intently, searching my face for something. I quickly became uncomfortable. His eyes revealed clearly, even in the gloom of the small shop, that I had made a linguistic and social faux pas. I had expressed something I should not have said in a language I knew only slightly; evidently I had conveyed some meaning not at all intended. A little knowledge of Arabic had proven to be dangerous.
After what seemed like several minutes, the proprietor decided that as a foreigner I did not really understand what I was saying and meant nothing untoward. I was not coming on to him, or whatever. He passed the incident off with a laugh, complimenting me on my Arabic.
I thereupon fled the shop as soon as was possible without losing any more dignity.
As Emerson put it, “It is a luxury to be understood.” That luxury was not accorded to me on that occasion. When I told the story years later to my scholarly friends at the National Humanities Center, I concluded by noting that I soon surmised our Arabic instructor was not the humorless cold fish the class had thought him to be, after all. Actually, he apparently was quite a sly one — it seems that he had set me up. Upon fleeing the Cairo bazaar, I had hardly been able to wait to express in plain Arabic to our teacher the hope that his house would fall in on him.
NOTE: This article in slightly revised form was published almost simultaneously under the title “The Perils of taking Language Lightly” in STATE MAGAZINE No. 406, June 1997.