A Slovak secondary-schooler once started an essay with: "Many people have left their unwipeable tracks on this century." Not bad for a teenager for whom English was a second language.
The theme of the student's essay was: Who was the 20th century's greatest person? It was submitted to a contest in which the winner got a free trip to England. The line provided a precious moment of humour in an otherwise grim essay reading session I took part in last fall. Also, it was right on the mark; had I sat for hours and wracked my brain for the perfect introduction to an essay on Stalin or Hitler, I could not have come up with anything so clever.
Of course, that beginning was not the work of a teenage prodigy, as the rest of the essay soon made tediously plain. Rather, it was one of those marvelous moments in language when a foreigner - whose mind may work according to different linguistic logic - stumbles across something magical, or thought-provoking, or (as is most often the case) sublimely ridiculous. The student in question had probably constructed a sensible sentence in Slovak and then found the words 'unwipeable' and 'track' in a dictionary. A je to.
I once had a student that used to come up with something hilarious just about every week. For a lesson on the passive voice, I constructed a situation involving a bank clerk. The lucky clerk was to be getting paid.
I didn't do a very good job at explaining that though, and my puzzled student looked up at me and asked, "Why is the clerk getting paid to be passive?" Funny that a Slovak should ask.
That same student (a computer programmer) once informed me that she was having a very bad day. "Why?" I asked. "Because I am having a hard time satisfying my users."
Perhaps most people wouldn't have found that as mirthfully sexual as I did, but lingual slips often have a dose of the Freudian. A Slovak colleague of mine in the same week told our boss, "your nuts are everywhere" (he had spilled a bag of cashews), and then later, preaching to the entire office the benefits of applying lotion, she said innocently, "I cream myself every morning after my shower." Another young lady, describing her morning ablutions, confessed to brushing her "teats." Ah, madam, we have much in common.
Not only would I never hear such phrases in America, I couldn't even call attention to them for fear of sexual harassment accusations. Most English speakers (Americans, anyhow) are so concerned not to sound racist or sexist or ageist that they don't dare voice any but the most banal opinions on sensitive topics. Sometimes I think we forget that the evil lies not in having opinions (our minds do those things whether we like it or not), but when those opinions are the products of hate and malice. Often it's a non-native speaker who reminds us that langauge doesn't have to be so serious or fraught with social danger.
Which brings us back to our sheep, as the French would say. The second best line from the teenage essay contest I judged dealt with the Japanese. A girl described them as, "clever and hard-working, like ants." I would never have thought of comparing the Japanese to insects, or of making the comparison in public, but it certainly made for a poignant, laughy image.
(The careful reader may have noticed the word 'laughy' in the last sentence. It was not used by accident. A friend once shared an amusing moment with a Slovak. When it was over the Slovak turned to him and said, "that was really laughy." And so it was.)
14. Aug 2000 at 0:00 | Matthew J. Reynolds