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My apartment in Philadelphia is three blocks from Geno’s Steaks, famous for the sign, “This is America, when ordering speak English.” The owner of Geno’s, Joey Vento, is a little guy with a big attitude. (Vento is Italian for “wind,” by the way.) Joey has a Hummer and several Harleys, which he displays in a store front with his confederate flag, Elvis figurine and a Frankenstein manakin wearing a T-shirt that says, “I’m an American, so I order in English.” Geno’s is a tourist magnet, so it attracts plenty of foreigners, but the sign makes little sense, since what language would anyone order in but English? Of the roughly 6,900 languages in the world, hundreds are endangered, with one disappearing every two weeks. Approximately 600 became extinct in the last century. English is not threatened, obviously. It is the most dominant and ubiquitous language ever, more than Latin, French or Spanish, so there’s no need to harass anyone into learning it. People worldwide are already hounded and seduced into memorizing, at the very least, “Yes. No. Thank you. Sexy. Excuse me. I’m sorry.” Conversely, Americans overseas seldom bother to order their foods and drinks in anything but English. Just across the street from Geno’s is Pat’s, the original Philly cheesesteak joint and Geno’s rival. Its slogan: “Don’t order a misteak.” Unlike Vento, Pat Francona is lowkey, a Democrat, like most folks in Philadelphia, and even a multiculturalist, “We serve everyone here. It doesn’t matter if you speak English or any language. If you need help getting through a cheesesteak order, we’ll help you. This is a multicultural neighborhood now. We have a range of different people now. We have to teach them. We can teach them to say cheesesteak.”
Before the absolute hegemony of English, sailors, as the only frequent travellers, were primitive, grunting polyglots. Columbus, for example, was said to speak “a thousand languages badly.” With Genoan as his mother tongue, he wrote in a Portuguese-inflected Spanish, sprinkled with Italian and Latin. Like other sea dogs, he was also conversant in lingua franca, at the time a combination of all the Romance languages, mixed with Arabic, Greek and Turkish. Using few pronouns, fewer prepositions and a pared down syntax, no past tense, barely a future, lingua franca was a negotiated, constantly evolving medium that allowed disparate peoples to communicate without screaming and gesticulating, to haggle, make love, or at least take turns on the dame de voyage after sharing a hunk of moldy cheese. Lingua franca’s role was diminished when one culture asserted dominion over another. Unlike sailors, soldiers of an occupying army are rarely disposed to negotiate with the locals, in any language. They learn few foreign words, if any, but the quaint, sullen natives must understand, at the very least, “Stop!” and “Don’t move!”
Nearly three milion U.S. soldiers served in Vietnam, but they stole no Vietnamese words. Why should they? “Tet” is included in many American dictionaries, but you never hear it in conversations. In 1988, Yusef Komunyakaa, a Vietnam War vet, published a poetry book, Dien Cai Dau. Literally, “Crazy the Head,” it’s an exclamation of exasperation, I’m driven insane, điên cái đầu! What’s the Arabic equivalent, I wonder?
Stop! Don’t move! Ti mi hazer venir pazzo! You’re driving me nuts! Hanging out with the U.S.A., Vietnamese have absorbed a few English words. In 1998, I found myself in Can Tho, the chief city in the Mekong Delta. Sitting in a cafe near the large, goofy Ho Chi Minh statue, I saw a gaggle of swishy young men marching down the street. The way they swivelled their hips would make Little Richard proud. “Ladiman!” the man at the next table exclaimed.
I had never heard that word. “What’s a ladiman?”
“Gay. They’re gay. They’re ladiman!”
The common Vietnamese term for a male homosexual is either bê đê, from the French pédé, or bóng, a word meaning both “shadow” and “shiny.” There is also the slang hi-fi, stereo sexuality, I suppose, and a play on the term hai phái, dual genders. It took me a moment to figure out that ladiman is a corruption of the English expression “ladies’ man.” Reincarnated as a Vietnamese slang, its meaning has been inverted, from a heterosexual stud to a half-and-half, a lady/man.
Many English words adopted into Vietnamese are merely technical: radio, TV, video, computer, fax… Others, military: xe tăng [tank], bom [bomb], na pan [napalm], mìn [mine]…
Constantly on the lips of the young set is mô đen [modern], meaning “stylish” or “hip,” as in, “My sister is so mô đen, she only listens to róc [rock], rap and jazz. She only wears imported jean[s].”
One peculiar transplant is lô gích, from the French, logique. The logic for incorporating a foreign word is to introduce a new object or idea. Why do Vietnamese import logique, when they already have lý luận? For cachet purposes, I suppose, the same reason why Italian restaurants in the U.S. are dubbed “ristorante.”
Unlike French, which has given Vietnamese ragu [ragout], bơ [beure], phô ma [fromage], sà lách [salade], phở [pot-au-feu], sô cô la [chocolat], bánh gatô [gateaux], bánh flan [flan], paté, paté chaud, and yaourt, almost no American food names have made it into Vietnamese. The handful of street stalls in Saigon advertising “hot dog” peddle a forlorn-looking Vienna sausage, served without mustard or ketchup.
Cocktail, often spelled cooktail, is a non-alcoholic mixed fruit drink. A cao bồi [cowboy] is a hoodlum. Mít tinh [meeting] means a street demonstration. Mátxa [massage] has illicit connotations which the traditional đấm bóp (literally: “punch and squeeze”) does not. Bê bi is just a baby, but má mi [mommy] is a madame in a whore house.
When someone is kicking back with a bia to enjoy a phim sếch, he’s nursing a cold one while rinsing his eyes with a sex video, which leads us to o li zin, from the English “origin.” Not a noun in Vietnamese but an adjective, this word means, curiously enough, “virginal.”
“Are you o li zin?”
“Yes, I am still a virgin.”
“Are you a ladiman?”
“No, I am a ladies’ man.”
Even “American” has been reshaped in the Vietnamese lexicon. In 1995, as I was walking on a Saigon street–literally, since there was no room on the sidewalk–a cyclo driver, pedaling alongside, hassled me relentlessly to ride in his cab. Despite my repeated refusals, he nagged on.
“Where are you from?” The guy asked.
It’s my least favorite question. I didn’t answer him.
“Where are you from?” He repeated.
Again I ignored him.
“You are a Nacirema,” he decided, and pedaled away.
Nacirema is American spelled backward. He was right. I am a backward American.
I, Linh Dinh, swear to defend to my last drop of bodily fluid(s) the purity of English. For the rest of my life, I will travel to every pseudo-sovereign, colonized, optically masturbated, brainwashed and McDonald’s outpost country on earth to warn the natives against converting to English. “Don’t bother,” I’ll tell them in clearly articulated, retarded syllables so they may all understand. “You’ll never master English, no matter what you try. Agents of bad English, you’ll bring down my beloved Empire. You may think you’re speaking English, but you’re just parodying and perverting it. You are like a virus running rampant inside the decadent English body. There’s no vaccine and it’s too late for a quarantine. Annihilators of English, as soon as you open your mouth, you’ll infect native speakers with your horrific pronunciations, spellings and grammar. Drugged by Hollywood films and armed with electronic dictionaries, you are no more than assassins of my sacred and euphonic English. As for that rarest of foreigners, countable on one hand, more likely just one finger, who are capable of beavering forward in a passable English, all they’re doing is injecting weird, foreign ideas into the Anglo mind, and making it less Anglo. In sum, the corrosive influence of billions of bad English speakers will make the language unrecognizable and irrelevant. So lay off my English, OK?”
“Take Latin,” I’ll continue after a sip of Bud Lite, “even after being dead for 1,500 years, latinated words continue to be sloshed and gargled by billions of unclean mouths around the world. First thing in the morning, people wake up to defaecatus on what’s left of latin. Instead of cruising up and down the Mediterranean, the Romans should have stayed in Rome to hoard and protect their culture. They should have barricaded themselves inside the Coliseum and build no roads, walls, acqueducts and amphitheaters all over the place. They shouldn’t have driven the bodacious Boudicca berserk by birching her. If they hadn’t colonized England, France and Spain, etc, Latin would not be buggered daily by the Nigels, Jean Pierres and Julios of the world. A language can only maintain its integrity by being exclusive, shut to outsiders, such as the Native American Ahtena (80 speakers), or better yet, the Argentine Ona (3 speakers). By cajoling the rest of the world into learning English, Americans are begging for their own death.”
Island, insular, isolated, all derived from the Latin insula. Hawaii-raised Zach Linmark told me that, as a teenager, he couldn’t wait to get out of Oahu. And yet, after bouncing around the U.S. mainland, England, his native Philippines and even Japan, he’s back on his lava spill for at least a portion of each year. A fringed mutt, self-taught hustler, Zach is a baaaaaaaaaaaad-assed polluter of English:
English at the End of the Lovers’ Tunnelvision
Excuse me lang, loverboy.
You think I’m going to stay on my level?
No way, sugar-high, honey-my.
You’re now looking at the improved me, that is, new.
No more faith in golden arrows.
No more swallowing penicillin the length of two Sundays.
No more pus from weekly whore wreckers.
Because frankly, I don’t give a frank anymore.
What do you mean tango takes two?
For your 411, you were the one who led,
I only did back-ups.
Don’t you dare touch me there.
And stop baby-babying me.
You’re grating my migraine.
What do you take me for?
Sweet & Low?
I’m no ordinary fool, sugar.
You can fool me once,
You can fool me twice,
You can even fool me thrice,
But over my dead body if you can fool me four.
Let’s skip that island host of the U.S. Navy for Iceland, where Uncle Sam’s military presence was terminated only in 2006, where most TV shows are American, E.R., Grey’s Anatomy, where almost everyone speaks English better than all of our Diebold-elected prevaricators. Let’s meet Ólöf Arnalds, “Iceland’s acid folk angel,” who told me that of the younger generations, almost every Icelander has travelled overseas, many to the US. Those who haven’t are either very poor or very weird. Many Icelanders have settled abroad, but most would return home to live. It’s very odd, she thought. Ólöf herself has spent a year in Berlin. We were riding back to Reykjavik after the farewell dinner for the Nýhil’s Poetry Festival. The organizers had hired a bus to take everyone to a fine lobster feast in the village of Stokkseyri. Our conversation turned to the hegemony of English. English syntax is leaching into Icelandic, Ólöf informed me, “Sometimes I hear things said in Icelandic that appear to have been constructed in English.”
“That’s incredible! You mean Icelanders are thinking in English while speaking Icelandic?”
“Yes, sometimes. Many Icelanders are so proud that we have come up with new words for “computer” and “software,” for example, but they don’t realize that English is creeping into our syntax. Icelandic grammar is very different from English. The language itself is very compact, whereas English is stretched out.”
Suddenly we were engulfed by a funny, rotten egg smell, similar to the tap water funk in my Reykjavík bathroom. At first, I had thought it was just my sad self. A plumbing defect, perhaps? Is the sewage pipe seeping into, contaminating the water pipe? How is that possible? The building itself was designed by Alvar Aalto, the Finnish master of Modernism. Goddam Modernism.
“It’s the sulfur in the hot springs,” Ólöf laughed. “I didn’t want you to think it was me!” So it came from outside, after all, in the darkened landscape, so it was no one’s fault, only the environment’s. That’s just how it is, Quasimodo!
In Reykjavik, Swedish poet/artist Leif Holmstrand and I were on a panel where a participant complained that he had to express himself in English, which gave me and Canadian Angela Rawlings such an unfair advantage. I acknowledged the irony of a Vietnamese using English as a weapon of mass destruction against Europeans, but English will go belly-up soon, I said, after the American empire implodes. In the meantime, I won’t relinquish my blue passport. Panel over, I asked Leif for his notes in English:
I see fragile things.
I see small sails, a something/nothing close to the sharks. A sudden floor of glass. I see a stranger, and I become something new in this relationship.
I see lots of good things to eat, like big shrimps and tuna, but someone tries to steal these things from me. My stomach is empty and turns inside out through my mouth to devour neighbours and neighborhood.
I see a Turtle flying in the air far above me.
I see mouths moving and chewing stupid words, repetition, repetition.
I see fragile things, justified anger, always that terrible common sense.
The sharks are getting closer.
I see conflict. I see lack of conflict, and sometimes peaceful meadows.
I see ice melting. I see ice melting. I see ice melting.
I also see fragile things and ice melting. As the sea rises and the oil runs out, each island will rediscover its physical and cultural boundaries.