Today I want to say what the first word I always learn in another language is: werewolf. Hombre lobo in Spanish, loup-garou in French, oboroten’ in Russian, versipellis in Latin, but Norwegian? Urdu? Greek? If I’m going out at night to use the outhouse and someone says “werewolf”, I want to know what they are saying.
Then, there are some language events that I’ll always remember.
One of the first ones was when I worked in a bookstore whose proprietors spoke French. They knew of my interest in Africa, so when some Senegalese came through, I think agronomists looking at how we raise our short staple cotton in AZ, they invited me to their house to chat with them. In the process, the word ground-nut or peanut came up when I didn’t know the French word, cacahuete. The next night the same people came to ASU and gave a talk in an intimate surrounding where people were asking them questions through an interpreter. The interpreter at one point translated cacahuetes as palm oil but hesitated. Little old me, about 19, piped up with peanuts and impressed the hell out of everyone.
Then I’d been reading Leo Rosten’s Joys of Yiddish and for some reason the word balabusta stuck with me, perhaps b/c it is kind of onomatopoetic and alliterative of the woman bustling about in the kitchen with pots bubbling and water boiling it means someone who is a real master of her domain in the kitchen. A couple of nights later neighbors invited us to a party. Everyone there was from the East Coast and spoke Yiddish. So at one point, when the hostess was being complimented as she bustled about the kitchen, I said, “She’s a regular balabusta” and the place broke up. Naturally, I asked if I’d used it right and they howled even more perfect. “Marcia, the man is in your house an hour and already he’s Jewish” and other such comments. It was a wonderful example of how people so appreciate it when you make an attempt to learn even a few words of their language, esp the language of the heart.
Another example was when my wife’s friend had married a Haitian and they came over. Of course, it was all about me speaking French. What they didn’t know was that I had been studying Kweyol aka Haitian Creole. So we began talking in French and he was delighted, being a light-skinned upper-class man. But then I began slipping in phrases in Kweyol and he responded, but then suddenly realized I was speaking Kweyol. He exploded with delight. People who speak languages outside the Spanish-French-German circuit, even Polish, are amazed that there are books written on their language. Socially it was interesting that he had no trouble speaking Kweyol b/c some Haitians feel it is beneath them to reveal they speak it, assuming a French-only pose. But his mother had been a vodunsi or voodooist and he had attended many ceremonies, so he was clearly in touch with the popular culture. As they say, Haitians are 98% Catholic and 100% voodooist.
BTW, just a few months ago, I had a similar thing happen at my son’s apartment complex out at the pool where a couple and the woman’s brother were just amazed at my ability very minor to speak some Kweyol. So interested were they that the next time I brought the Valdman book and they were esp delighted at the veve symbol on the cover a kind of mandala or sand-painting used in the religion of Vodou.