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A little wa-ka-mo-leh is worth all a snob’s troubles



A little wa-ka-mo-leh is worth all a snob’s troubles

A column to satisfy your inner grammar nerd

Deputy features editor: Sunday Times

Travel broadens the mind, so they say. It also broadens the hips, if you believe that the point of travelling is to taste everything a new country has to offer.
(Of course that’s the point of travelling, and of course you can’t taste a new thing only once; you need to try it at least, oh, seven or eight times, just to make sure it really is as good or bad as you thought it was. You can’t reach scientific conclusions based on the strength of just one sample saucisson.)
Speaking of hips, did you know that whales go through menopause? I read this in one of those “according to a study” news reports this week. The study’s sample consisted of a small handful of female whales, who were all dead at the time, but that didn’t stop the lead scientist from coming to the conclusion that lady whales carry on living after their childbearing days are done because their knowledge of where to find food is of great benefit to younger members of the species.Thank heavens for the old aunty whales or the young ones might never know that plankton lives on the surface of the ocean.
I wonder if menopausal whales put on weight and suffer from mood swings? I can just hear them: “It’s up there, you gormless calf. Up, I said, up! Bring me some while you’re at it, I’m feeling a bit heavy today.”
But let’s get back to travel. Another thing it broadens is one’s appreciation of language. I don’t mean the smattering of foreign words that one of necessity picks up while travelling – it is essential to know how to say please, thank you, and do you have this in another size – I mean a wider and more tolerant understanding of English and its many nuances.
English speakers are guilty of many sins. One of these is the imperious assumption that everyone everywhere speaks some semblance of English and there is therefore no need for us to learn anyone else’s language. Another is the snobbery that leads us to laugh at what we consider mispronunciations.
Travel may not cure us of the first prejudice but it does help a bit with the second. If you want to order food in a country where words are pronounced differently from the way they are in your world, you’d better learn to speak like the locals or go hungry. Try ordering “gwocka-mole” instead of “wa-ka-mo-leh” in any Spanish-speaking country and you might be offered a stand-up comedy gig instead of mashed avocado.
Linguists have studied how a person’s first language shapes the way they pronounce vowels and consonants. All the physical equipment we use when talking gets conditioned by the demands of our mother tongue, which affects the way we speak in other languages.Some native Spanish speakers, for instance, have trouble with the letter “v”. I once met a Spaniard on a train in Italy. Her English was minimal, which is to say it was far better than my nonexistent Spanish, but we managed to converse for many miles about the olive trees (“beautiful”), the vineyards (“so beautiful”), the weather (“really beautiful”) and the food (“ah”).
After a few hours of this, somewhere in the middle of Tuscany my new friend fixed me with an intense gaze and asked: “Have you many troubles?”
As one often does with strangers on a train, I took the opportunity to unburden myself of all the things that caused me pain, from the state of my finances to the unsuitability of my shoes to the fate of baby turtles who get their necks caught in those connected plastic rings that hold beer cans together. (Apparently in the industry these are called six-pack yokes. Turtles don’t find them remotely funny.)
My companion listened to my long litany of unhappiness with a sympathetic expression. When I paused to draw breath she said: “What I mean is, to what places have you been?”
She’d been asking about my travels, not my troubles. Still, I felt much better.
Speaking of Spain, the news report about menopausal whales appeared on the same day as an item about a man who’d been injured during the running of the balls.
That’s right: balls, not bulls.
Residents of the Spanish village of Mataelpino refuse to run with bulls as they do in Pamplona, because it is too dangerous for the human participants and too cruel to the poor terrified bulls. Instead they use giant balls made of resin, which weigh about 250kg each. Once things get rolling, these big balls are faster than a hungry baby whale speeding towards plankton. They can cause serious harm to the people trying to outrun them.
So much for balls being safer than bulls. But if the Spaniards are so keen on playing the vowel-substitution game, maybe next year they should try the running of the bills.In this version, all the participants sit down together and enjoy a delicious 12-course lunch. When the referee calls for the bill, it is the signal for the diners to jump up and run as fast as they can. Last one to reach the finish line pays for everybody.
On second thoughts, I hope the running of the bills doesn’t catch on. The stampede that ensued once money was at stake would probably inflict more injuries than bulls and balls combined. Not to mention all that slipping on vomit in cobblestoned streets.
All of which goes to show that travel, as well as opening windows into other cultures and languages, can teach you a thing or two about your own.

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