I was sitting on my homeward-bound train when, in the moments before the clackety-clack of the rails put me into dreamland, I realized I was overhearing the cell phone conversation of a woman sitting in the seat behind me. The words weren’t familiar, they were melodious, not the barking-dogs cadence of English. Perhaps it was Hebrew, I don’t know. Then it dawned on me that I had probably heard a dozen languages on my walk through Philadelphia to the train — English, Russian, and Spanish for sure, some Chinese and other eastern Asian languages, some dialects from India, German, French, Italian, and who knows how many eastern European languages. Those fair-skinned blonds were probably speaking some Scandinavian language. And, there were the guys conversing in American Sign Language.
Of course, I couldn’t understand any of those conversations. Four years of Spanish in high school left me barely able to find the baño. I never understood my Aunts and their friends when they were conversing in Italian. Even British English is perplexing. They take the lift down from their flat, throw their bags into the boot of their motorcar and go on holiday. I find it convenient, though, that I can always tell if a commenter on my other blog speaks British English when they say maths instead of the American English, math.
American English has dozens of dialects, ranging from Pennsylvania Dutch to Cajun. Even within a dialect, different words or pronunciations are used. Some people say soda; some say pop. Caramel is pronounced in several different ways, sometimes by the same person. So it’s baffling to me when traditionalists demand that everyone in the Country speak English. After eight years of having George Bush as President, it’s hard to tell what Standard American English really is anymore.
All this got me thinking about learning other languages. That’s something I have never been able to do. Some people have trouble learning math (maths?) or science. I have trouble learning languages. I’m not going to sit through more classes, use software, immerse myself by travelling to a place the language is spoken, or spend thirteen hours in a car listening to instructional tapes. Besides, all that work is barely enough to master one language, there are thousands of spoken languages, not even counting the hundreds of computer programming languages.
I want a universal translator. But not the kind used on Star Trek. There were too many instances when the technology couldn’t work for one reason or another. I don’t want a translator droid, a TARDIS, or something I might lose track of. I want a Babel fish, or John Crichton’s translator microbes, or some other instantaneous, all encompassing, organic translator that would be part of my physiology.
Let me be candid. What this is really about is that I want to understand what my cats are trying to tell me. You would think it shouldn’t be that hard.
Dogs may know 100 words, but they can only vocalize about 15 different sounds. Cats may only understand 25 to 35 words, but they can make about 100 different vocalizations. Perhaps cats are desperately trying to make first contact with us, as they only make these sounds around their human friends, not around other cats.
Some researchers have studied the topic in depth. Still, I’m a long way away from understanding which one of those meows means “tuna.”
Wouldn’t life be so much more meaningful if we could understand what each of us is saying?
I’m getting better, but I’m still never sure which “meow” means food, which one water, catnip, medication, clean the litter box. 😕 And I thought I was a linguist. 😦