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3:24 p.m. - November 14, 2005
The Spanish Word For Mouse Is...
Katie is starting to learn Spanish in Montessori school, which I think is neat. She knows all the names of the colors, can count to 20 in Spanish, and knows some other simple phrases.

If she keeps this up, she’ll be fluent in two languages before she’s 10. Which some of you smarty-pants will say, beats me two to zero. (Hah, hah, hah – I’m laughing already…)

When she’s watching either Dora or Diego, she’ll break into Spanish for some simple things. (By the way, “Go, Diego, Go!” has been on the air for two months or so, and she already has the theme song memorized and has her own choreography to it) She tells Kristin that her block is “rojo” or “amarillo”.

(What was Kristin’s response to this tidbit of knowledge? She either does her “Take a look at these hands” routine where she just stares at her hands, or she’ll make this noise for about five minutes straight that sounds like a metal detector finding a 50-cent piece.)

She sometimes asks Liz and me about certain Spanish words. Unfortunately, I’ve retained about as much Spanish as I retained Abstract Algebra and Real Number Theorem. Liz took Italian in College, so while that’s a similar language, it’s not the same and thus she’s no help.

So sometimes Katie comes up with some corkers, like this past week when she said, “The Spanish word for mouse is Kentucky.”

So that explains it!

But this started me to think about language, especially the English language. I remember when I was taking Spanish in High School, the teacher kept telling us there was a big difference in dialects between Spain and Mexico, which I rather much scoffed at as a kid.

If Spanish is anything like English, though, there are countless permutations of meanings, slang, idioms, etc. that could get you in trouble if you say the wrong thing or totally obliterate your well-intentioned thought.

Obviously, there are huge differences between how the English language is used here in the States, as opposed to Australia, or Scotland, or Wales, or England. The slang is totally different, and the accents can be befuddling at times to our gentle naďve American ears. I know there are great differences in regions as well, but to an untrained ear it’s just, well, similar. (Except for Cockney, everyone knows that thanks to My Fair Lady).

What’s totally freaky is hearing someone who has lived abroad for about five to ten years. There was a high school friend of mine who moved to Australia about seven years ago. She’s got this half-Aussie, half-Hoosier mix of an accent that sounds really weird.

(Deciphering thick accents and British slang though is one thing that my countless hours of viewing Monty Python’s Flying Circus helped at. I was the first kid in my school to know what ‘quid’ was, and I could quote the great Ewen McTeagle’s classic poem “Can I have 50 pounds to mend the shed?”)

Then there are our good friends in the Great White North. To a person, they are polite, rarely use improper grammar, and almost sound exactly alike (except for the Quebecois, of course). I’m sure someone up there can spot a Newfie a mile away versus someone from Vancouver, but I can’t.

But here, in this country, it’s getting harder to discern where someone is from just by listening to them. Why?

1. People are moving around from place to place easily.
2. More of the country than you think is accent-neutral.
3. Even if someone has an accent, it’s hard to tell the difference between parts of the south, or the northeast.
4. Hicks, everywhere, sound like hicks.
5. Country folk (not hicks, necessarily) and city folks are easy to tell apart no matter where you are at.

I’m not a linguist, or anything, but I can tell you from my ears what I hear as the major accent regions. But from what I’m hearing, the accents are dwindling in numbers.

Sure, it may be easy to hear someone and conjecture they live in New England, the NYC area, or the South, but can you really tell if this person is from Boston or from Maine? You may be able to tell a Brooklynite or someone from New Jersey, but how about someone from Georgia as opposed to Mississippi or Arkansas? Those distinctions are harder to make when you’re not in the area.

(Of course, some Manhattanites would like to think they do NOT have an accent, at all, and they’ll tell you this as soon as the butler is done drawing their bath and they finish berating their nannies that Emerson duRichmond IV peed his pants overnight, because anyone knows that even the littlest duRichmond never has an accident…)

Once you get to the Midwest, then there’s not a lot of accents that you run into. (There are some, and I’ll get to them, just hold on…) That’s true as you go West (keeping in mind the difference between the urban folks and the rural folks). I’m sure you can tell the difference between someone from NoCal versus SoCal, but I think it’s more of how they use the language than how they talk.

(Then there are the folks in SacTown, as my good friend Plum Win has documented greatly, thanks to postings from Craig’s list. It’s like the Midwest, out West. Yee, hah!)

Now, I’m a Hoosier, and we definitely have our share of hicks, but for the most part, we’re pretty generic Midwestern America.

The people up in Chicago land have their own unique sound (think of how they Jake talked in the Blues Brothers) which is kind of harsh and nasally.

Then there are the folks in Wisconsin, who have their own accent. I think it’s the beers and brats. It’s nasal, but gentle. It’s a couple steps away from Canadian.

Having not been to the UP (for shame) I would gather that their accent is similar to Wisconsin or Minnesota. The lower part of Michigan is somewhat similar to Chicago, but not as pronounced.

Then there’s Minnesota. You can spot a native from that great state a mile away, and it’s not all because of Fargo, you betcha! (Note to my Minnesota friends, I am not making fun of it – it’s distinctive, that’s all. Me I sound like Gene Generic Hoosier dude. Yawn!)

Just because many of us sound the same, doesn’t mean that everything MEANS the same. There’s the famous soda / pop / Coke split as shown here. If we have this many names for that, then imagine the other things we disagree about here.

But someone learning the language for the first time would have to deal with all of the different pronunciations and meaning everywhere as they traveled in this nation. I’m sure they’d be confused by some of the subtler nuances and slang and idioms.

Just like here, when leaving notes and comments to someone it’s easy to just lapse into your own lingo and the other person may have no flippin’ idea what you’re talking about. (Of course, that happens a lot in my comments, but it may be my predilection for quoting forgotten songs from the 80’s).

I guess we just need to be careful – be ourselves, but keep in mind how others talk and that the slang you use may be totally foreign to them.

But still, even thinking of all the possibilities, I have no idea how Katie got that the Spanish word for mouse is Kentucky.

I mean, I’ve called Kentucky a lot of things in my life, but a mouse? That’s a new one.


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