It’s a bit ironic that I, as one of the few non-Americans on this blog, have the privilege of wishing all the rest of you a happy 4th July. But here you go: HAPPY 4th July to all of you from O.R. Tambo International Airport in Joburg, South Africa.
If it hadn’t been for a kind soul reminding me, I’d probably forgotten about it altogether. Which, I suppose, in a way, would be quite fitting for this post because it’s about different set of references in a way.
Today’s post is a rambling about language. As writers, we’re of course above average interested in language. We want to paint pictures in our readers’ minds by using words only. To be able to do that effectively, we need to make sure the phrases and words we’re using are accurate and descriptive. We’re weighing verbs, trying to decide which one is most accurate. We let an adverb linger at our fingertips, and feel how tempting it is to type it out. Just because…sometimes… Never mind.
It’s all part of the normal considerations writers do on a daily basis. I do too, but in addition to that… it feels like I have a whole bloody UN conference blaring in my head. It’s like they’ve all hijacked the microphone giving their input on critical issues.
For a non-native English speaker like myself, there are added challenges to constantly trying to find the most suitable phrase to convey what I want to share.
I’m a language mess! (My friends will stretch it to include more than language, but let’s stick to that for today, and try to avoid causing complete havoc.) Or to use another phrase that I learned in high school and that might resonate with Americans: I’m a melting pot, or a salad bowl. I’m not sure which; I suspect it depends on how many glasses of wine I’ve had.
As a Norwegian I learnt (notice the t-ending there) Oxford English in school. But I listened to music from all over the world, and I watched both British and American movies and TV series. And I read English books, but I never paid any attention to whether they were written in British or American English. I was vaguely aware of some differences, but they didn’t matter.
To complicate matters, I moved to Namibia and was introduced to the weird and wonderful world of Namlish. Oh man…! It’s pidgin, of course. A crazy mix based on British English, but with words and expressions borrowed from Afrikaans, German, Oshiwambo and xhosa.
Here we say stuff like: “I met my cherrie in a shebeen and took her for a sundowner in my bakkie. We had a lekker braai on top of the koppie.” This sounds like a dialect from some remote place that only receive visitors once every leap year, or when the Tomtom goes wacko and decides to take you bundu bashing (now it starts to make sense to you, right? It’s all about the references). But most South Africans and Namibians will have all these words in their vocabulary.
After a decade of Namlish, with a steady stream of inspiration from Bollywood to Hollywood and everything in between, I’d probably reached a point where I should quietly hide in a djimba djimba hole rather than flaunt my language skills.
And that’s when I decided to start writing. Yes. In American English, nonetheless. Why not? And while I’m at it, I’ll do it in first person too. Oh yeah. And my protagonist will be an American woman. I’ve never set foot in the USA ever, but what the hell, my very prim and proper English teacher said I talked like Ricki Lake when I was in high school. He snorted when he said that. Bollocks, I replied, but he was still not impressed.
Armed with an English dictionary and the laptop spell check, I decided to go in search of those magical words that paint pictures in readers’ imagination.
Is it working? Er…I think it’s safe to say that some of my descriptions come out as color splashes rather than delicate drawings at this stage. And I’m not sure I can pretend it’s meant to be abstract.
It’s the tireless effort of a group of loyal beta readers who are taking out the red highlighter every time they stumble over a “British-sounding” phrase, or “I-have-no-idea-what-this-means. Is-this-even-English?” phrase that saves the day.
On good days, I think it adds to my voice. My mind is wired slightly differently and occasionally a literal translation of a foreign phrase will become an original description in English. It will be familiar enough to make sense to a reader, but still exotic and refreshing. Other times it short-circuits completely. It’s definitely risky business and it’s a slow process. It takes longer to find the right words when you have to listen very carefully to hear them through the droning sounds of multiple languages all fighting for your attention.
Will I ever get there? You know…I think I might. But only because I have the best support group a language-confused cherrie can wish for. Thank you for being you.
Cayenne Michaels in a Norwegian expat living in Namibia. She’s a scuba diving desert rat and a Jack of All Trades, master of…er…none? A couple of years ago she woke up with the crazy idea of writing a book, and she’s been hammering away on the keyboard ever since. It’s a crazy project, a gigantic slice of life type of story and based on the word count it can probably be sold as a brick instead of a book, if it ever get as far as proper book form.