What International Travel has taught me about English

English is my native language, and I’m very grateful that my mother tongue is basically the Latin of the 21st century – the language of universal commerce. I say grateful because I always want to keep an attitude of humility when it comes to the global dominance of my language. I never want to be one of those travelers who, upon arriving on a foreign shore, arrogantly expects the locals to speak English and is offended when they don’t. I appreciate every person in another country who does speak English to me, and I usually try to learn at least a greeting or a thank you in the local language.

I’m far from being a seasoned traveler, but my experiences both overseas and with foreigners in America has taught me a few things about my beloved English.

Normal conversational speech is way too fast. And I’m from the American South where we taaaalk….reeaall…sloooow. If you’re in a non-English-speaking nation, or talking to a local at home who is still learning English, slow it down. Whatever you think is absurdly slow is probably still a little fast, especially if the other person’s English is very poor. And be sure to annunciate each word. We all tend to mumble and blend our words in the comfort of our mother tongue. A side note: resist the urge to shout. The other person knows English as a second, third, or fourth language – their hearing is probably fine. I tend to be soft spoken, so I’m not usually a shouter, but if I have to repeat myself several times, I do remind myself to speak slower and clearer, not necessarily louder.

Don’t judge or correct. If someone says something to me that makes grammatical sense but not contextual sense, I ask for clarification about the word that I think they might have misused. Asking for clarification or explanation is a more polite way of letting the non-English speaking person know that they goofed. Nobody likes to embarrassed, even if they made a legitimate mistake. By using this technique, I’ve often had the other person admit they probably used the wrong word and ask me for help. It’s much nicer to be asked to help someone with their English than to be the language police making corrections all the time. Also, whenever I’m tempted to judge someone’s English or get impatient, I ask myself how well I would do at talking to them in their language. Since I know far less Norwegian/Chinese/Farsi/etc. than they know English, I choose to be grateful that they’re trying to communicate with me at all.

English is hard. Grammar and spelling rules, exceptions to those rules, different pronunciations for the same letter combinations… Even us native speakers – and yes, even us grammar nerds – have trouble remembering all the rules and conventions of English. Yes, every language has its quirks and inconsistencies, but most everyone agrees that English is near the top of the list of difficult to learn. I’m always appreciative when someone has taken the time and mental effort to learn English, even just a little bit. Again, if I ever catch myself growing impatient with a non-native speaker’s improper use of sentence structure – like saying “You is” or something – I remind myself that I likely couldn’t do half that well in their language. And again, I keep an attitude of gratitude. I’m thankful and humbled that I was born into an English speaking culture. Not because English is better than other languages, but because I’m blessed that one of the complex languages of the world today comes naturally to me.


Borrowed Words, part 2

I wrote a post some time back that featured so-called “borrowed words” – words that have become common in English, yet still retain their original spelling/meaning/pronunciation (some words more so than others). Every language has borrowed words, not just English, especially in today’s global village life. For example, how many languages use terms like “computer” and “tee shirt” as they are instead of translating the actual meaning?

So here are a few more words that you’ve probably heard and used in your speaking or writing of English – but they’re not actually English words at all.

Smorgasbord – a large spread of a variety of foods. This term often is used in a more metaphorical sense to describe an array of anything that features great diversity or variety – like, say, a smorgasbord of entertainment available at a county fair. The word is spelled Smörgåsbord in its native Sweden, and specifically describes a buffet-like arrangement of cold foods.

Cuisine – another foodie word here, which basically means “the art of cooking.” It’s a French word (like so many food words are, actually – buffet, gourmet). Cuisine usually refers to the specific types of food and preparation styles associated with a regional area or culture.

Tsunami – a big ocean wave, of the sort that causes devastation on land. Sometimes it’s called a tidal wave, but most people use the Japanese word tsunami.

Tundra – an arctic landscape of rolling hills and treeless vegetation. Alpine tundra refers to a similarly cold and harsh landscape high the mountains where it’s too cold for trees to grow. The word comes from the Sami languages of northern Scandinavia and north-western Russia, and it means “uplands” or “treeless plain.”

Boondocks – in American English it means a remote place, like your uncle’s farm out in the middle of nowhere. American soldiers in the Philippines brought this Tagalog word into English. Bundok means “mountain” in Tagalog.

Opossum – a small marsupial common to the Americas, especially the North American east coast region. If you’re from a country that doesn’t have opossums, consider yourself lucky. Personally, I find them to be creepy creatures – they look like giant rats, and are notoriously slow to get out of the road. The name of this animal comes from the Virginia Algonquian language of the Powhatan Native Americans.

So there you have it – more English words that aren’t English at all. What are some other borrowed words?

A Few Thoughts on Iceland

I’ve been away for the past week, checking another country off my places-to-see list. I then suddenly remembered that I should put up a blog post, so here it is. This is me working off of several days straight of must-have-more-fun-faster traveler’s exhaustion, and trying to compose words that do not contain the letters ð and þ.

I quickly learned the all-purpose greeting of “góðan dagin” (that was about all the Icelandic I mastered). But apparently I did master that one phrase so well that when one cashier told me the price in Icelandic and I asked her to repeat it in English, she gave a laugh of surprise. “You said góðan dagin so well that I thought you were Icelandic,” she told me. Score one for me, the professional linguist hopeful.

They say that if you don’t like the weather, just wait five minutes. Well, I had to wait a whole day, but I did experience weather of all sorts:

Mt Esja on a sunny day

Mt Esja on a sunny day

Mt Esja the next day. Clouds and snow rolled in!

Mt Esja the next day. Clouds and snow rolled in!

Iceland is volcanic (no kidding. Eyjafjallajökull, anyone?) So there are lava fields everywhere. Or big chunks of lava. Or both.

Lava, lava everywhere

Lava, lava everywhere

Walking around the city, it felt like everything was uphill both ways.

Walking around the city, it felt like everything was uphill both ways.

I went into a few books stores, of course, and did buy some books (all in English. My mastery of góðan dagin isn’t quite enough for me to read an entire book in Icelandic). One book store sold knitting supplies in the basement. Why not, right?

If you like to knit, Iceland is the place to shop.

If you like to knit, Iceland is the place to shop.

Apparently Icelanders do not want tractors cluttering up their city streets. C’mon, Reykjavik needs a few tractors, surely.

Tractor-free zone this way

Tractor-free zone this way

Stay tuned for more Icelandic-themed posts in the future, and maybe a guest-post by me on a blog about Iceland!

Borrowed Words

Every language is influenced by other languages. And every language winds up adopting foreign words over time, sometimes adapting them to unique uses in the new language, and sometimes keeping the form and definition the same.

For this blog entry, I thought I’d highlight a few common words that are used in modern English that actually have their origin in another language far removed. Such words are usually called “borrowed words,” which personally I find to be a strange term. The language and its speakers don’t temporarily borrow a foreign word with the intention of giving it back someday. “Adopted words” would be more accurate, in my opinion; but for now I’ll go with the more well-known linguistic term.

Buffet—a self-serve spread of food, often found in restaurants such as an all-you-can-eat cheap Chinese buffet. This word is French, and it originally referred to the sideboard (or side table) where food was laid out to be served to seated diners at the dining table.

Kayak—a narrow one- or two-person boat steered with a two-ended paddle. It’s an Inuktitut word (often spelled “qajaq” in that language). The Inuit and Eskimos of the Arctic used this boat for centuries for hunting and travel before we adopted it for recreational use.

Piano—a musical instrument constructed of keys which use hammers to strike strings to produce the sound. It’s part of a longer word pianoforte, which is Italian for “soft-loud.” It meant that this musical instrument, unlike many others of centuries ago, could be played both softly and loudly.

Sauna—a hot room, either steamy or dry, used for relaxation, rejuvenation, and all manners of sweating. We get the sweat-room concept, and the word, from Finnish. The Finns love their saunas.

Bazaar—a large shopping venue, with many stores or booths selling a variety of merchandise. Bazaar is a Persian word, and us English speakers liked it so much we now use the word for everything from art shows to farmers’ markets to catalogs.

Geyser—a hot spring that erupts from beneath the ground with explosive force, often at regular intervals. Iceland is a land where many geysers can be found, and that’s where the word comes from. “Geysir” in Icelandic is both the general term for this natural phenomenon, and the name of one of the island’s largest geysers.

So there you have it—who knew that English uses so many words that aren’t English? And I could list many others. Anybody else have other suggestions to add to the “borrowed words” list? How about some words “borrowed” into other languages besides English?

A Quick Traveler’s Guide

Today’s post is a little random, for two reasons: a) I’ve been sick for two days and therefore have been massively unproductive and couldn’t think of anything else to write, and b) it’s the last few days of NaNoWriMo and I’m frantically trying to pound out a few hundred more words (I’m embarrassingly far away from the 50k word goal, but that’s a different topic).

One of my dreams/day-dreams is to be a travel writer. The first key to that is, of course, being a traveler. I’ve been to a handful of US states and three foreign countries, but I doubt that’s enough to qualify me as an “experienced” traveler, or worthy of writing a book about traveling.

I think it does qualify me, however, to write a blog entry about some of the places I’ve been. So here’s my quick-and-easy guide to getting by in select international venues:

Costa Rica (specifically San Jose, and a Pacific-coast resort that I can’t remember the name of):

Tip #1: It’s always temperate weather. Houses and public buildings are built open-air or with windows that cannot be closed.  Very odd for someone who comes from a place that requires A/C in the summer and heating in the winter, as well as protection against hurricanes and ice storms. Nothing but sunshine (and humidity) in Costa Rica!

Tip #2: Black sand beaches are cool, but they’re surprisingly similar to white sand beaches. It’s a beach with sand. Only it’s black. It was my first view of the Pacific Ocean, though!

Tip #3: Not very many people speak fluent English. Conceited American here, who expects everyone to speak their language. No, I did not go there actually expecting everyone to speak English (although my friend who I was visiting spoke English). I attempted to brush up (that is, learn from scratch) some Spanish, but I don’t think I ever managed more than “please” and “thank you.”

Beautiful black sand beach

Beautiful black sand beach


England (specifically, London—and only some parts of London. It’s a really big city):

Tip #1: When they say “Mind the gap” when you’re loading or unloading at a tube station (underground rail), they’re not kidding. At some stations, the gap between the train car and the platform is large enough to lose a Rottweiler in. Heed the warnings of the nice British lady’s recorded voice when you’re on the subway, folks.

Tip #2: If you want to shop for a few days in a row, go to Portobello Road. It’s closed off to traffic on the weekends (I think that’s when we went), and it’s miles (or kilometers) of shops, street vendors, street musicians and performers, and more shops. Lots to see and do and buy, and as a bonus, you’ll get that song “Portobello Road” from that old Disney movie stuck in your head for the rest of the day.

Tip #3: Not very many people speak fluent English. London is the melting pot of the world, and I heard more languages on a daily basis on the streets of London that I’ve heard collectively my entire life. And those people who do speak fluent English speak British English, which might as well be a foreign language to my American ears.

Much shopping to be had on Portobello Road

Much shopping to be had on Portobello Road


Norway (specifically Bergen, and a scenic fjord about 45 minutes outside the city):

Tip #1: The flora and fauna of Norway are beautiful, especially out by the fjords. For someone who comes from the east coast of the USA, where we think that Afton Mountain in Virginia is a tall mountain, the mountains of southern Norway totally blew me away. There are also these little neon-green birds that live out in the wilds—they looked almost fake they were so brightly-colored, but I was assured that they were quite real. The birds like to snack on the giant black slugs that come out after it rains (which is does about eight days a week in the Bergen area), so watch where you step.

Tip #2: The currency is a tad confusing for us simple-minded Americans. You feel all rich marching out the door with 2,000 kroner in your pocket, until you realize that equates to less than 400 US dollars and a bowl of soup is going to cost you about a bazillion kroner.

Tip #3: A lot of people speak fluent English. Thanks goodness, because I went to Norway knowing less Norwegian than I did Spanish when I went to Costa Rica. Again, I had a friend with me who was bi-lingual, but it was nice that most people there were bi-lingual as well. I always had to ask people to say it in English, though—because of my pale looks and my lack of tourist-y fanny pack and camera, everyone assumed I was Norwegian. While this was flattering, it was also embarrassing, since the only word I mastered while there was “takk.”

Horses grazing by a fjord. Beautifully scenic.

Horses grazing by a fjord. Beautifully scenic.


So there’s my first foray into travel writing. No offense is meant, of course, to any of those countries or the people in them. I loved all of those trips, and met friendly people and had great experiences. Anybody else have a humorous or useful travel tip about a place you enjoyed visiting?