I have always loved words. As a kid, I loved to just flip the dictionary open to a random page and read all of the words, their definitions, and the etymology. I was fascinated about why each word was chosen to represent what it did, why some words had so many different meanings, and just the sound of different words. I used to enjoy the challenge of trying to deploy more obscure or at least unusual words into conversations. In doing so, I increased my vocabulary. Years later, as a High School English teacher, I used to encourage my students to do the same thing when they had idle time. I have never lost my love for words and my enjoyment of the richness of the English language with all its mongrel origins.
Therefore, I knew I was in a tricky spot when this week’s Art Journal Adventure prompt was to incorporate a word and its definition in an art journal page. Impossible! How on earth could I ever choose a single, solitary word? By the time I actually had some free time for art, I had arrived at my solution: I was not going to visually represent one word; I was going to visually represent my love of all words. I, therefore, covered an art journal page in dictionary pages (from a discarded, library reject dictionary, worry ye not) and then drew my doodle version of me swimming among the words, an endless sea of vocabulary for me to explore, float through and enjoy.
The Elementary School my younger boys attend is very good at utilising parental knowledge, skills and experience. It is a very good way of including parents and embedding the school’s connection to the community. It is also a great way of extending the education of the students, building in extra little titbits and exposing them to things they may have had no awareness of. As a genuine, bona fide immigrant with a very definite accent, the staff at the school have been making use of me since the kids were enrolled in the school. This may or may not have something to do with the fact that several of the teachers are entirely obsessed with the ‘Outlander’ series of novels which are set in historic Scotland.
Having read one class a traditional Scottish Traveller’s tale – The Hedgehurst – last year, I extended their knowledge of Scottish literature still further by talking to them about Robert Burns recently. I was visiting as part of a series on tradition exchanges so the focus of my talk was on Burns’ Night. I told them about the speeches, toasts and recitations; gave them a brief overview of the languages of Scotland; provided a potted biography of Robert Burns; and I read them excerpts from ‘Address to a Haggis’ and ‘To A Mouse’ in Scots and then provided an English translation. What most engaged the children, however, was the talk about the food. They were disgusted yet completely fascinated by the ingredients of haggis. I assured them that many people find haggis very scrumptious indeed, including the little Pict who is their classmate, but I don’t think anyone was convinced, not one bit. What’s not to love about sheep’s pluck mixed up with oatmeal and spices and stuffed inside a sheep’s stomach? When I told them that I had brought a sample of some Scottish food for them to try, their little eyes popped wide open in revulsion and horror. I quelled their panic by informing them that I had in fact brought small pots of cranachan for them to try. If you have never heard of it, cranachan is a delectable concoction of cream, raspberries, honey and oatmeal soaked in whisky. For obvious reasons I had switched the whiskey for vanilla essence. I think that went down better with the kids than samples of haggis would have done. In the course of my talk, I had to explain that haggis is illegal in America which is why I could not even provide one for the class to see. That led to a whole tangent about Mad Cow Disease. They were captivated by it. Perhaps next time I should go in and talk to them about my knowledge of diseases (genuinely, one of my nerdy interests is plague).
The following week I was again foisting Scottish victuals onto children. One of my sons has been working on a unit about different countries of the world and he was assigned Egypt for his project (which led him to – just for fun – write the story of Osiris from the point of view of Set all written according to the hieroglyphic alphabet). As part of their studies, the class were having a multicultural feast. Each student could contribute a food or drink from either their country of study or a country relevant to their own cultural heritage. As tempted as he was by sticky date treats, my 9 year old decided he wanted to contribute something Scottish to the feast. I wrote recently about my husband finding a source of British food so he was duly packed off to hunt and gather half a dozen bottles of Irn Bru. The feast was a huge success and my son enjoyed trying all of the different foods and drinks, several not previously familiar to him. I am extremely happy to report that the Irn Bru (a Scottish soft drink) was a massive hit with the students. I am pleased to have had a hand in introducing their tastebuds to an unfamiliar and slightly bizarre flavour.
Those are formal cultural exchanges, of course. I am, however, also responsible for an informal cultural exchange. I have been volunteering in my youngest son’s Kindergarten class a few times a week in order to assist the children with learning to write. This involves me sounding out words to help them figure out which combination of letters to write down to create each syllable and construct each word. It took me a while to realise that this was leading them to write with a Scottish accent. There is no emphasis on accurate spelling, just on familiarity with letters and combinations of letters to produce the phonetic sounds of the words. Therefore, when I was reading their work back, scribing the correct spellings beneath their writing, I was reading in a Scottish accent and as such not noticing that the sounds were wrong for American English. Their writing was riddled with my clipped vowel sounds and Es in place of As. Oops. Since that epiphany, I have been having to adopt an American accent when sounding out certain phonemes. In return, the children have been helping me remember my American vocabulary and have been correcting me when it comes to my apparent insistence that Z is “zed”. I am not quite there yet but gradually they will get it fixed in my head that in this country I need to say “zee”.
My sons finished the school year on Tuesday morning. It is hard to believe that school is over already as the time seems time seems to have passed so quickly – even eliminating the fact they started the school year in Scotland and had a period of being homeschooled in England before we actually emigrated. They each came home with so much paperwork from school that they really would have had to hire sherpas if we didn’t currently live next door to the school. Overwhelmed, I piled it all up on a table and let it intimidate me for a day before I started delving into it, determining what should be added to their memory boxes and what should be recycled.
This whole business of sorting the wheat from the chaff should have taken me less time than it did simply because I found a lot of their work quite diverting. Among my eight year old’s rainforest of paper there was an alphabetic writing prompt. For every letter of the alphabet, there was a question (with a tied-in key word) that invited him to develop a pithy, personal piece of writing. C was for collection and he was asked to share what he would collect if he could collect anything at all. My eight year old duly answered that he would collect glass human eyes because they are cool and different and “because my mom has always wanted to collect glass eyes”. So very weird but also very sweet and thoughtful. My seven year old wants to collect animals bones. I love my little weirdos.
But I digress. The point of this anecdote is that in several more examples I was referred to as “mom” and not as “mum”. I have written before about how I feel about what this exchange in vowels means to my identity but to see it on page after page really drove the point home. In order to make himself understood by his peers, in order to fit in conversationally and abide by American spelling conventions, even the most non-conformist – diligently, defiantly, determinedly non-conformist – of my sons has capitulated to conforming. Out of curiosity, I then quickly skim read writing by all of my other sons too. All of them were referring to me as “mom” in their written work.
I accept it and I understand it and, therefore, I support it but by jings it feels very odd indeed. It feels weird enough reading it but if they start actually calling me “mom” then that will feel even more alien. It’s only been eight months and my children are being Americanised. Little transatlantic Pod People.
I have undergone a technological revolution since moving from Scotland to America in that I have jumped from a mobile phone that was just a few steps up from two empty bean cans and a piece of string to a smartphone. I am like Ishi emerging into the modern world when it comes to phone technology. I cannot say that I have mastered it at all. In fact, I often find myself typing pleas to friends on Facebook asking them to tell me how on earth I do something on the phone. However, I very much enjoy having a tiny little computer in my pocket. With all of the things that I just don’t know, being able to conduct a quick google has helped me overcome a lot of minor moments of ignorance as I navigate life in America. Our Garmin satnav has not been cooperating at all since we emigrated (I think it took the huff) so I have been using my smartphone as a sat nav – a pretty critical function since I have no idea where I am going most of the time. Easy access to email and Facebook is also helping me to maintain frequent contact with family and friends. My kids also love my phone because they can play games on it and watch YouTube and even Netflix. A function of the iphone that my husband likes is the voice recognition tool, which is named Siri for some reason. Siri likes my husband and does his bidding. Siri, however, hates me.
The thing is that Siri is clearly set to understand American English. She is smart enough that she can understand my husband’s plummy English accent. My Scottish accent, however, floors Siri. She is bamboozled by my monopthong vowel sounds and my rolling Rs. Anything I ask her leads to a lot of whirring in the little “thinking” circle only for her to spew out a garbled version of what I asked or provide a reply to a question that does not remotely approximate my inquiry.
The other day one of my children wanted to know what George Washington’s last words were. I asked Siri. She thought I had asked “What were George Washington’s last works.” Close, but no coconut.
I asked Siri how many litres were in a gallon but she thought I asked “How many litters in a galleon.” Strangely she had no answers for that query.
I asked Siri to find me a recipe for peanut butter banana bread and I got “pizza peanut butter banana” which incredibly led her to then find me some restaurants serving such a concoction (allegedly) and she then sorted them by distance. Her efficiency and list-making skills are impressive but that was still not what I asked. I tried again and got “Find nearest be subpoena butter banana”. I wonder what that court case could be about. Intriguing.
What was the last film that Gregory Peck made? Why that would be “the last Olympic make a pigmeat”. I don’t recall seeing that movie. It certainly sounds interesting.
Ultimately I bypass Siri, open up the internet and search google to find my answer. For someone with a Scottish accent, it seems that Wikipedia likes me more than Siri.
Meanwhile my kids love Siri. They find her hilarious. They particularly enjoy starting fights with Siri. They call her a loser and she responds with “I’m doing my best”. Despite them flinging insults at her, they asked if she was their friend and she replied, “I’m not just your friend. I’m your BFF.” Siri can keep kids amused on a car journey for ages. For that I might just forgive her for not understanding a ruddy word I say.
She also has a sense of humour. To a degree. Siri, what is the meaning of life? “I Kant answer that. Ha ha!”
So Siri likes my husband and she has great rapport with my kids. It’s just me she doesn’t get on with. The feeling is mutual. Some day we might reach a level of understanding.
Just as my children are picking up the denominations of coins quicker than I am, they are also adapting their vocabulary in a way that I am not. My youngest two are now referring to their trousers as pants whereas to me pants are and probably always will be underwear, Pudding is another one the kids keep correcting me on.
When I say to them that there is a dessert to follow the main course I refer to it as pudding whether it’s cake, ice cream or yogurt. If it is a sweet treat that follows a main course then to me it is a pudding. Pudding in Scotland can also, of course, refer to a very specific type of dessert – a cake full of dried fruit or baked bread and milk or rice cooked in cream would all qualify as puddings. Here in America, however, pudding is a very specific type of sweet confection, a sort of milk-based gloop a bit like a less-set blancmange. I can’t stand it because too me textureless food is invalid food so it instantly makes me feel queasy. Mr Pict and the kids all love it.
For the sake of clarity, therefore, I am going to strive to teach myself to say “dessert” instead of pudding.
Unless my human testing sample is unusual, Americans do not seem to understand the word perishing as it relates to temperature. “It’s perishing today” was met with uniformly blank expressions. I shall have to remember that in future.