Azure Jane Lunatic (azurelunatic) wrote,
Azure Jane Lunatic
azurelunatic

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Motorcycles... (and the power of second-language writing)

Ghost Town: a motorcycle ride through Chernobyl.

Via theferrett.


Less-polished, second-language English can also powerfully turn phrases. It highlights clichés that we're not even aware of speaking, half the time, until we see other possible English phrasings for the concept, and we become aware that the words we automatically think of, the ones a native speaker would use, have worn too thin to convey the punch that the halting, limited vocabulary of this speaker accomplishes with grace and economy.

I think it was 1991 or so when I discovered this most powerfully for myself. 1991 or after, I think. In the late 1980s, graduate students from China began trickling into the university where my father worked, and as they were strangers in a strange land, my father took it upon himself to learn some Chinese and get to know them and welcome them. (I can imitate the fruity tones of the Berlitz English phrasebook readers very well, even to this day.)

We got to be very good friends with one extended family. First my father made friends with one graduate student, and he introduced us to his wife, and eventually someone's sibling and their spouse and child came to the US as well. We spent a lot of time having cultural exchange and hanging out. My father introduced them to the wonders of sledding down icy roads in the Alaskan winter; we learned some new swear words. My father introduced getting stranded on the top of a small mountain some twenty miles out of town. We were introduced to the assorted joys of owning an ancient car in poor repair, and also some new swear words. I was introduced to hot chili oil by accident; they were introduced to what a medium-size child looks like just before she bursts into flaming tears.

One evening, while my family was visiting one of the families, quite possibly the night that the X-Files episode "Little Green Men" premiered, the mothers were chatting, my mother and the lady of this branch of the family. She was talking about some person, perhaps a mutual acquaintance, who had... she searched for the correct word. They were in the hospital. They were alive. They had tried ... "Murder self," she finally came up with.

That isn't the usual English phrasing, and yet it's so much more evocative. "Kill" is as close to a neutral word for inflicting death as the language has. "Murder" is dark passion and violence and still has the power to shock. It was a wrong phrasing for colloquial English, but ever so correct for making me shudder before I quietly offered her the word "suicide".
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