(Appearing in Univ. of Bridgeport U.B. Roundtable publication, March)
Professor Mike Lauterborn
In Spring 2003, while browsing titles at a library book sale, I came across John Steinbeck’s “Travels with Charley”, documenting the noted author’s three-month adventure traveling around the perimeter of the United States with his dog. It was such a great tale that I was inspired to replicate the journey, using his book as my atlas, and write a pseudo sequel called “Chasing Charley”. Buying a van and setting off in September the same year, I rolled along 17,000 miles of road and through 35 states, meeting people from all walks of life during the journey. I can tell you that it was an education and great opportunity to be exposed to different languages, accents and commentaries about language. I have spotlighted a few of those exposures here.
On the front end of the trip, while staying with friends in Meriden, New Hampshire, I scanned the local Valley News, enjoying a column by Tom Hill titled “Half A Bubble Off Plumb”. Hill dwelled on the amazing flexibility of the English language, comparing it to “a ground-hugging sports car that can handle any turn and twist in the road.” He pointed to colorful phrases like fancy-schmancy, hanky-panky, heebie-jeebie and mumbo jumbo.
I never thought of Bar Harbor, Maine, as a crossroads of the world, but when I stopped at the Opera House café, I heard a Southern “y’all”, some Cotswolds-based British and Deutsche that hailed from Freiburg, Germany.
Stepping over the border into New Brunswick, Canada, the small TV in my van carried only French programming, but it was an Acadian French that had been boiled down and slathered thick like jam on a croissant. While I had studied the language in high school under the tutelage of Madame Josset, it was difficult for me to follow.
Visiting the Onondaga Nation Territory in western New York, I encountered a pair of native teachers who were developing a curriculum for Onondaga language instruction. To that point, the language had been unwritten, so they were creating standards to represent oral words. A common greeting I learned was “Nya wenha Skannon” (pronounced Nya-way-ha Skan-noo), which means, “I’m thankful for the light within you.”
At celebrated Niagara Falls, I paused to take in the view, standing alongside people of the world with skin colored black, brown, white and yellow. While the languages we all spoke were different, the look of awe on our faces at the wondrous sight was universal.
Stopping at the Crow reservation in Montana, near the site of General George Custer’s infamous Last Stand, I had a chance to sit down with a park ranger who spoke about the battle but also the structure of the Crow leadership there, which has remained unchanged for centuries. The Crow Agency, as they call it, is headed by a Chairman, and he must speak the Crow language as a qualification of his position.
In San Francisco, I climbed the noted landmark Coit Tower on Telegraph Hill and, here again, found a melting pot of people mingling in the open-roofed viewing platform. Germans, French, Canadians, Irish, New Zealanders, all come to take in the view and chatter excitedly in their own brogues.
Barreling through the Mojave Desert, I passed through Navajo territory and stopped at the Route 66 Diner in Sanders, Arizona. There I met a medicine man and his daughter Cherelyne. She taught me the Navajo words for “hello” (yateh, pronounced ya-tay) and “goodbye” (goonah, pronounced go-oh-nah).
Enjoying some broiled catfish at a place called Cajun Tales near the Sabine River Bridge in Louisiana, I enjoyed hearing the colorful conversation of a family of Cajuns sitting nearby. Remarked my waitress, “They must be from the swamp. I heard the name Cletus and I ain’t heard that in a long time.”
In Charleston, South Carolina, an open-air market offered a wide array of wares from taffy and pecans to baskets and apparel. While many of the vendors were black Americans, there were standouts like a Filipina woman named Virginia, who offered fish-shaped pendants. She taught me to say “take care” (inga at) in her native language.
There were many more encounters, too numerous to retell here, but the point is that there’s a rainbow of varied language and dialects all around us, even in our every day travels. Listen for it, savor it and celebrate the nuances that make us the unique citizens of the world that we are.