Sunday, June 24, 2007

The English Language

I wish I were more specific in my speaking. I really do. I go back over these things and realize that an omitted comma has made my sentences vague and confusing.

My husband and I had a funny exchange the Saturday before we went to Montreal. We were running around doing errands including dropping the house-key off with my friend and pet-sitter. On the way there I said that we should get more dog food "...before we go," meaning, sometime Saturday (we were leaving Sunday morning). I had earlier said we should fill the tank with gas before we go, again meaning sometime in the next 24 hours.

Him: What good would that do?

Me: What do you mean? Aren't we close to being out? I don't want to leave M worrying she's going to run out of food.

Him: What? But if we have it, what good would it do M?

Me: Why would we have it? What are you talking about?

What he had understood me to mean was, literally before we go--as we are leaving Somerville and taking to the highway--therefore taking a bag of dog food to Canada with us. What's funny is we actually did end up getting gas literally before we went--on the way out of town just because that's when we passed a gas station, but we did buy the dog food on Saturday.

Now, could I have made that sentence more clear. Yes--"We should buy some dog food now and take it home." "We should buy some dog food today." But those are unwieldy and unlikely to be used in conversation. Was I using incorrect English? No, but again, it is in the nature of spoken language to be sometimes indefinite. Again I wonder about other languages. How do the Japanese keep track of things without personal pronouns (but an abundance of politesse?).

Obviously we explained ourselves and laughed and played with the image of taking a bag of dog food to Canada. Of poor M trying to ration out Guinness's food for the week, but my friend B has been writing a book for years about these types of miscommunication. Of what is wished (let us stop now and buy dog food) and what is expressed. The example I remember him giving was, wife says, "Are you hungry?" meaning I'm hungry. Husband says, "No." Wife seethes, resentments grow.

(Note to JT--we said we were leaving at 9 am. Hit the highway after getting gas and coffee--for husband, smoothie for me at 9:02! Hope I can continue that next week!)

1 comment:

Matt said...

One overcompensation on the part of the Japanese: words akin to "um" and "y'know" are EXPECTED when you speak, both to show deference and humility, but also to be sure people are keeping up with what you're talking about. In standard Japanese, there's of course "ne" which is less "y'know" and more a polite intensifier. "It IS, isn't it?" Then there's "desshou" which is "y'know" for most practical purposes, or rather similar to the Minnesota "Don'tcha know." In Kansai, they say "yaro" instead of "desshou." There are 3 ways I can think of to say "um" in Japanese - "eto...", "ano..." and something else I've suddenly forgotten. Oh, and in Kansai, there's also "naa" which is sort of "ne" but a bit more like "it's like that, innit?"