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Do languages bring us together... or just make us feel plain silly?

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Do languages bring us together... or just make us feel plain silly?
Language is a sometimes strange phenomenon. Photo: PromesaStudio/Depositphotos
12:38 CEST+02:00
English teacher David Ashby has learned Swedish, but often gets mistaken for a Norwegian. But, hey, at least they're both Scandinavian, right?

The other week I held a breakfast seminar at a large Swedish company talking about the common mistakes that Swedish speakers make when using English. During the event I mentioned that when I tried to speak Swedish it wasn’t uncommon for the person I was speaking with to ask if I was Norwegian. Which to me, is a win. At least I sound Scandinavian, which is something. 

To be fair though, people not knowing where I come from, even when I’m speaking English to another native English speaker, is not a new phenomenon. Many years ago I was in the United States of America and somebody in a shopping centre asked if I was from the same place that Crocodile Dundee came from. 

“Australia?” I asked.

“Yeah, Austrian,” he replied.

“No, actually I’m from the UK.”

“Well, you speak pretty good English anyway.”

READ ALSO: Learning Swedish? Read The Swedish Teacher's blog


It doesn't really matter which language, it's all confusing. Photo: Staffan Löwstedt/SvD/TT

So, Norwegian, Australian, whatever, I’m used to confusing people. And language gives plenty of opportunities for confusion to erupt. That same trip to America we hired a car, and we had a minor problem, in that I needed to top-up the screen wash, but for the life of me I could not find the release lever under the steering wheel. I noticed a little note on the windscreen that said “Any problems, call this number”, so I called the number and the conversation went like this:

“Hi, I have one of your cars, a Caprice Classic, and I’m afraid that I can’t find the release lever for the bonnet.”

Slight pause.

“Excuse me?”

“Uh, I have a Caprice Classic and I wonder if you could tell me where the release lever for the bonnet is.”

Slightly longer pause.

“The what for the what now?”

My turn to pause.

“I, uh, need to fill the screen wash, but I can’t open the bonnet. I’ve been looking everywhere under the steering wheel but…”

“Hood,” he interrupted, “You mean the hood.”

My many hours of watching American TV cop shoes came back to me and I remembered that in the US it wasn’t “bonnet” that Starsky (or was it Hutch?) slid over, but “hood”.

“Yes, sorry, I suppose I do, the hood. I need to find the lever to open the hood to add some screen wash.”

“You mean lever,” he replied, pronouncing it “lev-er” as opposed to my “leee-ver”.

“Sorry, yes, lver,” I said, dropping the "e" entirely (British people are used to apologising profusely and accepting their obvious errors), “for the screen wash.”

“Wiper fluid.”

“Um, yes, sorry. I mean wiper fluid.”

“You want to know how to flip the hood to fill the windshield wiper fluid.”

“Well, just open it really, I don’t need to flip it.”

“Excuse me?”

“No, sorry, yes, you’re right, that’s exactly what I want to do. Flip the hood and add fluid.”

“That’s pretty basic. This number is usually for accidents and breakdowns.”

“Sorry,” (my fifth one in about a minute) “but, as I’m on the phone could you tell me…”

Long sigh.

“Sure, there’s a foot catch down on your left hand side, right up at the back of the footwell. Hit that.”

“Great, I see it. Thank you.”

“Say, you from Europe?”

“Ah, yes, yes, I am.”

“Well, you have a great day anyway.”

And that was that. So, anyway, I had been talking to my audience the other week about how often I was confused for a Norwegian in Sweden, and it happened again yesterday, just to underline the fact. I needed a haircut – not that’s it’s actually getting too long, it’s just that as I get older, it seems to just want to do its own thing more and certain parts tuft up for no reason, and the white hairs in my sideburns explode in a shower of silver tentacles, much longer than the other hairs, and try and envelop my ears in a white web of weirdness – so after shopping I popped into a hairdressers I had never been to before and said:

"Hej, är det en möjlighet att få en klippning nu?" which I hoped meant ”Hi, is there a chance of getting my hair cut straight away?” The gentleman nodded and waved me to sit down. I tried to tell him what I wanted, basically to not look like a frizzy old codger, when he asked me:

"Du kommer från Norge, ja?" (you come from Norway, don’t you?)

Quietly pleased, I shook my head and said:

"Nej, jag kommer från Storbritannien." (no, I come from Great Britain)

"Och."

Now, this last bit was a bit confusing to me, as "och" in Swedish means "and", so I wasn’t sure if he was being a little bit fresh with me, as in, "Oh, so what? You come from Great Britain and you think you’re so high and mighty with your afternoon tea and your country pubs and your premiership football" or if he wanted more information. Wanting to always think the best of people, especially people who are about to have sharp and pointy objects near my face, I assumed he wanted to know more.

"Från Brighton," I said. (you can work that out).

"Och."

Now I thought he was being fresh. What more information did he want? Street or just general neighbourhood? While I was pausing thinking of a suitable reply he quite happily started to cut my hair, and by his general demeanour I could tell that he wasn’t really hanging on an answer from me. Then I worked it out. When he had said "och", there had been a very slight nod of the head, which at first I took to be part of the question, tipping the head towards me saying,"your turn to speak, limey", but actually he had just been nodding affirmation. He actually meant: "OK", but had been pronouncing it exactly as it looked – "Och", rather than "Okay". Perhaps as I had told him I was from Britain he had switched to English and was now speaking English, although not very well.

READ ALSO: Read more columns about the Swedish language here


File photo of a barber. Photo: Fredrik Sandberg/TT

I looked at this man with sharp scissors snipping near my rather large and fragile ears. Was he quite well, I asked myself. Isn’t "okay" one of the world’s most recognised phrases that everyone, even people living on leaves half-way up the Amazon understand? Did he really not know how to pronounce "okay" or was he just being ultra-trendy and cool? Was "och" the way you said it these days when you fidgeted your spinner and dibbed your dab? Was I really so far out of the loop that I had missed a striking change in the language? I have a nine-year-old, so I thought I was with it. Or was this man just amazingly dim.

I sat in silence as he cut my hair and considered. Luckily, he wasn’t much more of a talker. I was reminded of a quote that has been attributed to Winston Churchill: during the war a barber came to cut Mr Churchill’s hair. "How would you like your hair cut sir?" asked the barber, "In silence" replied the Prime Minister. Well, quite. Still, I thought, if he wants to say "OK" as "och" then why shouldn’t he? Why shouldn’t language be fluid and adaptable? I looked at my hairdresser more deeply. Top knot, finely shaved beard, waxed moustache, silver streaks in his hair, one arm a swirling gallery of tattoos, no socks. This was one very cool 45-year-old. If he wanted to say "och" rather than "okay" then it was fine with me. Besides, he was nice enough to think I was Norwegian. Unfortunately, when he finished my hair I still looked like a frizzy old codger, but I guess the science of haircuttery (I just made that word up) can only do so much with what it is given. Actually, it was even more confusing when he put the scissors down with a flourish as he said "Finished Monsieur." French too? What a fizzy sparkle of languages for one visit to the hairdresser.

It is so interesting how language acts as a tool to bring us together, but also has so many pitfalls that can confuse and embarrass us and make us feel silly and Norwegian. Or Australian. The biggest danger I think is assuming that the other person knows what we're talking about, or that we assume we understand them.  Often we don't, not really.

Anyway, let me know if you would like me to come and give my “common mistakes that Swedish people make” seminar at your company. It’s not bad. (English for “actually very good”).

David Ashby, from Brighton, moved to Gothenburg in 2002. He is a certified English as a Foreign Language teacher who today teaches business English in Stockholm. Read more about him here.

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