Friday, September 26, 2008

Tales From The Old Country and Beyond, Part 24

On Language: Scottish

My father never learned English well. He didn't have to. In a town like Milwaukee, you could get by with German and Polish most of the time with some Yiddish thrown in. He did read the local newspaper every day, though. It was important to him to stay informed, a trait that I found in just about every Jewish male immigrant. The overriding idea was to be watchful of any changes in this country; America was a great place, but you never knew. Some anti-Semite could get elected and everything would change. You might have to leave overnight. It's why you always kept your passport current and some gold coins and cash hidden somewhere.

Part of that fear was reinforced by the times and the state my father and his fellow immigrant Sheboyganites/Milwaukeeans were in. The McCarthy Era, with its arrest of many Jews and the murder of the Rosenbergs, put fear into every Jewish immigrant. Add in the fact that McCarthy was from Wisconsin and the fear of being falsely arrested for being a communist or having communist ties was likely a little higher than it was elsewhere.

My mother for instance loved to read Russian novels and would go to the Milwaukee Public Library as a new immigrant to get copies of Tolstoy et al. in Russian. With the rise of McCarthyism she stopped. She was worried that someone would trace her library usage, claim she was a communist, arrest her and deport her. But I digress.

There was another reason my father didn't spend much time learning English. My mother was there for him. She came to this country at the fairly young age of 20, and unlike my father had taken English classes in her gymnasium in Germany. Her teacher there was Scottish and one of the funnier things about my mother was that she was convinced she spoke English with a Scottish accent. I probably have a recording of her voice somewhere. Her accent was strictly and thickly Eastern European. Because she didn't speak Yiddish until she was 12 or so, there was little in the way of a Jewish lilt (which I actually have, particularly when I'm tired). But Scottish? No way.

My father too had a funny thing about Scottish accents. By coincidence, his first and only English instructor in the US was Scottish. He would get so frustrated trying to understand this instructor's non-American accent that he gave up. From then on until his dying day, if he didn't understand what someone was saying in English - no matter what the accent - he would say in Yiddish to whomever could help him, sometimes me, "He's speaking Scottish. What the hell is he saying?" You had to be my dad's interpreter. Sometimes when someone with a broad American Southern accent would speak to my father and he'd come out with his "He's speaking Scottish" thing, I'd break into such hysterical laughter that I couldn't translate. I couldn't help it. It was just so funny to me.*

My mother's English wasn't particularly good, but it was heads and shoulders above my father's English. It meant that my mother was in charge of dealing with Americans, from bankers to potential buyers, in their family business. This was a good division of labor for another reason. My father was never comfortable around people. He had the temperament and analytical skills of an engineer although he did like to go out dancing and loved to tell stories. My mother, on the other hand, was a social creature.

My mother also often tried to improve her English and would take classes. This was especially true in the 1960s and 1970s when Henry Kissinger was Secretary of State. There was a time in Kissinger's rise to prominence when he took lessons on how to reduce his heavily Germanic accent. After those lessons, he did sound significantly different. My mother noticed the change and it spurred her to go to a Catholic college and take several classes with some nuns. My mother tried hard, but her accent was virtually immutable. Plus I don't think that those nuns were likely as talented as the expensive instructor that the Nixon team got for Kissinger.

When I think of my parents and my family, I can't help but think of their catch phrases and mangled pronunciations. For instance my father would always pronounce the word hardware, hard-wear-ee. This was a man who worked on construction for all of his years in America and had accounts at several hard-wear-ee stores in town. As a kid, I would try to correct him, but he'd get indignant. "Stupid American language," he would say. "If the 'e' is there you should pronounce it." He wasn't going to cowtow to convention. For him, the silent "e" was an insult to his intelligence.

When my father was impressed with someone's salesmanship he would say, "He could sell the New Yorker Bridge." Often, I would try to tell him that it was the Brooklyn Bridge. He wasn't impressed with my efforts at helping him here, either. His usual response was, "Brooklyn is in New York, right?" That would be the end of the discussion.

When my grandfather was pleasantly surprised by something he would mix German and English together and say, "mein goodness." This was about the extent of his use of any English catch phrase to express emotion. If he was angry, he'd usually shout out in Russian, "yob tvoyu mat" which means f*ck your mother. This would be usually accompanied by taking a phone book and slamming it down on the ground. It was a phrase my father used as well, but his most common invective was "somovabitch." I never tried to correct him when he said that.

I'll end with my mom, who battled her weight all of her adult years. She would say to me, "Before I had you, I could eat anything I wanted and never gained a thing." Not that she was blaming me mind you. She had quite the sweet tooth, really couldn't resist any fruit or piece of chocolate or cake. She would always say, "Just give me a 'vinchee' piece." The word 'vinchee' meant tiny, but it's not a word that I know in Yiddish. It might be a Polish or Russian word, but I think she just might have made it up.

Both my mother and father used the worth "fruitalize" instead of "fertilize" as in "it's time to fruitalize the lawn" or "fish bones make great fruitalizer for trees." I always thought that this manufactured word made a lot of sense and I use it every now and then in homage to my parents. Who knows? I might start a word revolution. Maybe one day "fruitalize" will become an official English word and I'll be able to use it in Scrabble.

*Many years later when I moved to Chapel Hill, there was a sweet lady who lived across the street with the thickest of Southern accents. She had married into a Southern Jewish family - her husband had passed a year before I moved there - and one day she said to me, "Ahm goin' to a Bahrrr-Mee-Itz-Vuh. Do ya know what a Bahrrr-Mee-Itz-Vuh is?" I immediately thought, "Oh my, she's speaking Scottish," and realized just how frustrated my father would have been listening to her. I bit my tongue to keep from laughing like I usually did when I tried to translate Southern accents for my dad. "Yes, I know what a Bar Mitzvah is," I said. "I'm Jewish." That lady would become good friends with my mother. Despite cultural differences, they were both shrewd business people and saw eye to eye on many things.

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