Potatoes In the Mouth


I was in Sweden a few years ago in order to visit my  brother Simon and his family, in Lund, and in order to attend a conference in Stockholm.  I do not speak Swedish.  We arrived in Copenhagen from Germany, and I do not speak Danish either. When I made comments to Simon about hearing and not understanding Danish, my brother muttered things about the people across the bridge and potatoes. This is a common critique: someone speaks a language closely related to yours, and you claim that they speak your language with potatoes in their mouth. I have heard Germans call Dutch “children’s German” and of course the British and the Americans exchange various digs about who speaks English with greater sophistication, or with less pretention, or what have you.  

Unfortunately in many cases involving language stereotypes, a single person has come to represent the language of one country to another.  For some people who do not live in Germany or speak the language, Hitler’s screaming stands for exactly what all Germans sound like. I happen to like the sound of many German and Austrian accents, and I love to speak the German language.  My husband speaks Bavarian (though only when with his friends) and for me the sound causes  a burst of positive feelings.  Of course, this is enhanced by the fact that when he is speaking Bavarian, we are with people I love to be with, drinking steins of Weizen. There are also German accents I do not like. I dislike Schwäbisch, for example, but that does not mean I don’t like people from Biberach.

He knows this already, but I would not be married to my husband at all if we had met speaking in French.  He sounds more attractive in English, and even more attractive in German than in French which he speaks in a higher and less rounded voice.  In addition, he has the remains of a southern accent in French, because he spent formative language years in Montpellier, which coming from him sounds gulpy and unpretty.  Basically, we would have married sooner if we had met in German.  This analysis (except for the marriage part) is also true of a German colleague of mine with whom for many years I had only conversed in French and English.  He speaks both of those languages quite formally.  Then one night we dined with my husband and spoke in German.  "He is actually a cuddly bear," my husband and I agreed after dropping him back at his hotel.  The next time I was at the colleague's university, I  mentioned the cuddly bear analysis to his wife.  She looked at me like I was out of my mind, but it was of course meant as a compliment.

In the United States foreign films are not dubbed, and so when I first saw, and then saw again and again Le Grand Blond Avec une Chaussure Noire, and indeed La Cage aux Folles, I loved the French.  But actually the person who represented the sound of French for me was Maurice Chevalier who starred in a movie, Gigi, that my parents used to watch on TV when we were very young, and probably asleep.  I did not see the movie until I was an adult, but because my parents had bought the record album (!), I learned at an early age to sing “Thank Heaven for Little Girls” just like Chevalier.  When I do it now my children plug their ears and scream.  Also it didn’t age well and sounds incredibly creepy.

Quite often I encounter people who bark or gargle some version of what they believe John Wayne sounded like in order to convey to me the sound of American English to their ears.  I suspect that rude people have been known to hold their nose and quack out obnoxious sounds in order to parody French too.  Dutch has some guttural sounds, and so I can only image that the Dutch have confronted ugly renditions of phony Dutch as well, and I feel sorry for them in advance of hearing confirmation of this.

In the end, language is like music. There is some basic emotional impact, but there are a lot of cultural associations and personal experiences associated with them.  I like the sound of Italian spoken in Milan because I have a friend from Milan who I adore.  Milanese has come to stand for Roberto.  I like people speaking Milanese because they remind me of Roberto.  

If people could just come up with their own personal Roberto for each language, things would be better in the world.  At least the insight that parodying other's languages is never, ever funny at all would help things a bit.  Then maybe I wouldn't have to hear any more John Wayne impersonations.

Posted by Paula Niedenthal at 7:04 AM JUL 13, 2011