Monday, January 29, 2007

Using the Language

For the most part, America is hopelessly monolingual. Sure immigrants and their children move to the US from all over the world and speak thousands of different languages at home, but English is the only language necessary for integration. Thus when a language other than English is used in public in America, it is always done with a specific purpose.

For instance, in giving a French restaurant a French name such as, C'est Bon, the owner wishes to convey much more than the fact that they serve decent French dishes. A French name also implies elegance, fine quality and even romance, attributes that any restaurant owner would want associated with his/her dining establishment. Almost anything, store names, clothing and everyday speech sound more sophisticated and appealing in French. After all, who would buy a muffin from The Baker when you could buy one at Le Boulanger?

And it seems to me (leave a comment if you disagree or have another idea), that if saying it in French can make something more stylish, then saying it in Spanish can make it more fun. My friends and I used to meet at a bar called Tres Gringos for happy hour when we had spent too many unhappy hours in our classrooms. Now, 'tres gringos' literally means three white guys and that title wouldn't entice anyone to stop in for drinks. But in America, Tres Gringos means 'we may not have the most authentic food, but we've got tequila aplenty and we'll serve it to anyone, especially gringos.' Playfully add some espanol to your evite and suddenly everyone wants to come to your fiesta. See what I mean?

I started thinking about how we use languages other than English in the US because I wonder why and for what purpose people use English in Switzerland. A lot of the graffiti here in Zurich is in English and it saddens me a little bit, but mostly I'm curious. Am I just not noticing graffiti in other languages because 'f*** you' stands out a bit more than foreign swear words that I don't know? Do the Swiss resort to English because their own language, Swiss German, is only oral? When I saw the words 'the end for you' spray painted on a building yesterday I wondered whether the artist/vandal wanted to be understood by the international community or whether he was explicitly targeting English speakers. Criticisms of Bushy are plentiful over here so I had to wonder if 'the end for you' referred to the American president.

If French = refined and Spanish = fun for English speakers, what does English mean for the rest of the world? There are a lot of stores and restaurants here with English names and I wonder what their owners hoped to express by using English. My guess is that English makes something more cosmopolitan, hipper, more modern and more universal. I wish I could back this up with examples, but for now this is just a feeling. Over the course of this year, I will pay special attention to the use of English here in Switzerland and report back later. Julie, your thoughts would be appreciated. Everyone else should see Julie's post about 'ridiculous English.'


Nan said...

Remember Pulp Fiction where John Travolta references "Le Big Mac"?
I also saw a store in NYC called
"The Boutique Shop"
I'm glad I can laugh at myself and our culture. It would be excuriating to take it personally.

Paulette said...

I think that the use of English for business means...please bring your dollars here! English has become the international business language

Danielle said...

I think you are absolutely right about French usage in the English language. I often tell my students that many times authors will use French words in middle of a sentence because the French meaning is more comprehensive or appropriate in that context. For example, words like "nee" instead of "born" or "double entendre" instead of "has two different meanigs." I can understand why they use these words, but at the same time they are only allowing access to their text for a the select few in the upper-crust who had the privilege of learning French. HA! I crack myself up - don't worry, I don't take myself too seriously on the this subject.

I think that your question is quite fascinating Alane. Such a bright young thang! Unfortunately I haven't lived in a country that speaks anything other than English, so I can't help you out. But my guess is that English is used to evoke either crudeness or coolness. Let me know what you find out!

Leah said...

In Russia, using French was a really big deal because it meant you were cultured and uppercrust (like Nabokov, let's say) and German meant you had a strong business sense. I think you hit on something really interesting, though. English is kind of the universal language to show that you are modern, and it also invites tourism... if you want to be more "authentic," you probably wouldn't use it. Keep me posted...

Ingrid said...

for people that don't have english as their 1st language, knowing a little english is indeed scary! we can just laugh at the fun side of it when they coin some english words to make up a phrase or shall i say a catch phrase. but when the coined words that became a phrase don't really make sense, i hope someone will be brave enough to tell them "it doesn't make sense". you should go to asia, there you can see english phrases in all its absurdity!