Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Language Lessons

Wedding photo of Jacob (sitting) and Pauline (standing) Diel on November 22, 1925.

Language is an amazing thing, isn't it? Experts tell us that language learning begins in the womb, before our first coo or da-da is ever uttered. For some of us, learning to talk gives our parents joy, even as they beg the good Lord to "shut that kid up for just one second, will ya?"

I've been thinking lately how the language of people I love affects me even now as an adult, even though they are long gone from my life. I'm a native speaker of Amercian English, but thanks to my Grandma Diel---born in a German village near the Caspian Sea in Russia before the assassination of the czar---my everyday speech is peppered with several "low-German" words and phrases. In fact, certain words of Grandma's are so ingrained in me that my brain calls them up as the default setting, rather than their English counterparts. When I want to discuss things like cleaning spilled milk, ufeshlumba comes readily to mind. Or if I want to give directions to Mr. Johnson's house, I say that his house is easy to spot because it sits shraeks on the corner. These words are part of my DNA, and I love it when I see them seeping in to my kids' speech.

If your vocabulary could use a little freshening up, by all means, feel free to borrow from my grandma. Below are some of my favorites, creative spelling and pronunciation guide included.

  • ufeshlumba (OO-fesh-loemba)---literally, an "up-wipe rag"; great for cleaning up all kinds of liquid messes.

  • shraeks (shrakes)---this is what you say to describe anything off kilter; you position the lid shraeks on the pot so the steam can escape as the water boils.

  • bahzoof---the modern German equivalent would be pass auf (take care or look out), but Grandma pronounced it bah-ZOOF and always wagged her finger at you as she said it. Her meaning was clear: "You better watch out or......" (fill in the blank).

  • Haase kniddle---pronounced HA-zuh kuh-NID-dle; Haase, meaning rabbit, and kniddle, meaning, well...excrement; used (usually while giggling) to describe the shape of poo in the diaper of a grandchild experiencing constipation.

  • weisskopf---pronounced VICE-kopf; literally, "white head"; used to describe any person with lightning-blond hair. Marilyn Monroe was a weisskopf.

So there you have it: my trip down memory lane and how a little girl growing up along the Volga River in 1912 still leaves her mark in the life of a 45-year-old woman in 2010 America.

What about you? Do you have any language lessons you'd like to share with the class?


Helen said...

In South Africa we have the word 'Fiemie' (feemee). It's a neurotic aversion to something. eg. 'She can't touch 20c coins - it's one of her fiemies.' 'He won't eat fish on a Wednesday - that's one of his fiemies.'

Heather Trent Beers said...

Helen, very interesting! Thank you for sharing that. My goal is to use that in a sentence today. Out loud. To another person. :)

Linnette R Mullin said...

That's really neat, Heather! My words aren't nearly as glamorous. I grew up in Mo hillbilly country.

Yunz = you all or all of you

Young'ins = kids/one's offspring

yonder = a little ways off in the direction indicated

holler, as in give me a holler = let me know, call me, make me aware, yell, etc.

warsh = wash

winder = window

piller = pillow

hun or hon = a term of endearment

"Bless your heart" = you poor thing, whether its from true pity or a nice way of being sarcastic

Heather Trent Beers said...

Linnette, I'm familiar with most of these terms, having grown up in Alabama. I'm curious to know if "Missouri hillbillies" ever "cut on" or "cut off" the lights? They do in Alabama. :)

Simmie said...

Your post reminded me of my father who was a filipino. Even though he had lived in the U.S for 50 plus years, he still had a thick accent. Instead of using words from his native tongue, he would have difficulty remembering the English words for things. They becamee the "whatchamacallits" and the "thingamajigs". Through the years I added a few I heard from other folks, like "thingamabob" and "doodaddy". I picked an important one when I lived in Hawaii that I use to this day. It's "pow" (probably spelled "pau")It means done, over, or finished. I gotta go, 'cause this comment is pow.

Heather Trent Beers said...

Simmie, I love that "pau" word! I'm going to try to sneak that in when I'm talking this week. Pau. :)

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Hauke said...

I'll try to translate those words to modern German:

ufeshlumba is probably "ein Abwaschlappen"
shraeks - "schräg"
Haase kniddle - "Hasenköttel"

Heather Trent Beers said...

Hauke, thanks for the modern German! I knew I could count on you. :)

Jacob said...

I think I remember most of those words you listed being thrown around at our house. I also remember on the weekends when you and Dad were planning a trip to the theater or something and planning out the trip in German.

I don't think I ever really learned the vocab or phrasing but I was eventually able to figure out what we were doing pretty quick =D

Heather Trent Beers said...

Jacob, I'm glad you remember me "throwing those words around." I hope you caught some and use them yourself. :) Your brilliance in catching on to our German is why Dad and I had to switch to Ibish and sign language, both of which you decoded pretty quickly. After awhile, we just had to throw you out of the house and demand you get a life of your own. :) We love you, sweetie!

Judith Markovich said...

So fun, Heather. My mother was from South Carolina. She was often heard saying, "Well, spit fire!" Not that that is South Carolinian talk.

By the way, just read your devo in 101 Facets of Faith. Outstanding!

Kansas Bob said...

I went to school in Brooklyn. I have always thought that yuz guys in KC talk funny.

Heather Trent Beers said...

Judith, I had a friend whose father (also a South Carolinian) was known to say, "Ooh-wee! Fits like socks on a rooster!" That was, evidently, a good thing. :)

Heather Trent Beers said...

Bob, ya'll New Yorkers are downright crazy, you know that? :) (My "Alabama" is shining through.)

Sue Ford said...

Fun post.

I had a friend who used to say, "I'm so mad I could spit." Bet she got that from her parents.

Moving around the country I learn new ways to say the same thing. When I was a kid in Oregon, and a bunch of kids jumped on one another in a huge pile, we called it a "pig pile." Picture a bunch of piglets. Here in the Midwest I'm told it's called a "dog pile" which makes me think of what we called "dog doodoo."

Heather Trent Beers said...

Sue, funny how we say things differently in different parts of the country, even though we all speak English. I grew up sitting on a couch or a sofa, but my paternal grandmother called it a davenport. And even though I carried a purse with me, other girls I knew carried a pocket book. Go figure!

Linnette R Mullin said...

Hi, Heather! They "cut off" the lights where I'm from. :D

Heather Trent Beers said...

Linnette, my college roomie used to "cut on" and "cut off" the lights, too! ;)

Daniel Karanja from Church said...

Thank you for posting this amazing article Heather. Language....mhhh where do I begin. I grew up in a part of the world that holds language in high esteem. where language is everything and means everything.

I grew up learning and speaking 3 languages: Swahili, Kikuyu (my native language) and English. I used all three languages simultaneously at different times and places. I learned early on in my life to associate language with work, school, family, God or emotion.

I spoke only English in school because it was considered "the appropriate academic language" as a language of the Europeans.
My family spoke mostly Swahili and Kikuyu at home because of the strong cultural and nationalistic connection associated with both these languages. Culture was passed on through language. I vividly remember my Dad telling stories and fables around the fire only in Kikuyu because these amazing stories only made sense in that specific language.

In trying to follow in the footsteps on age old tradition, I now find myself trying to pass on my culture through language to my 5 yr old son who was born in America. It is not easy.

Since I became a follower of Christ 2 yrs ago, I have been learning to listen to God's language, how he speaks, when he speaks and what he is saying when he speaks. It holds special significance to me based on my experience with language that the God of the Entire Universe loves me so much so as to speak to me in a way that I understand him best. In "our" language....just between me and my creator

Heather Trent Beers said...

Daniel, these are all excellent comments! I especially enjoyed the little bits of insight you give us into your culture and the importance of language. Thank you for taking the time to share! I'd love to hear more from you about how your culture holds language in such high esteem and how your son is responding to your efforts to teach him the same. :)