Courtesy of www.ReneMagritte.org
Almudena’s piercing tone brought George back from the flash of his inner recollections.
“George, hey, George. With this cultural mirror bias idea, are you telling me that working with others here is all a question of nationality?
“No, uh no, um no” mumbled George, pulling himself together to try to re-join the conversation he had momentarily drifted away from. “I’m sorry if I have given that impression.”
Almudena smiled, waiting for George to reconnect with her.
“What I mean to say is that working in the ERA has made me think a lot about miscommunication. Nationality is a contributing factor but it’s not the only thing.” George was straining to find words to express himself. “It seems to me it’s something deeper. About what else goes on in our minds and bodies when we speak a language.”
“Jes,” answered Almudena, “I know what you mean. When I am speaking English, I always feel like I am sitting in a village café in Devon, saying things like ‘Fancy another cup of tea?’ and ‘How nice of you to ask’ and ‘What a delicious piece of cake’.” Almudena emphasised the words, which made her feel most English when she said them.
“That’s it,” replied George enthusiastically, “It’s not just what you say, it’s the way you say it! I believe we all learn a bit of politeness and civility when we enter into the rhythm of English. English grammar is so relaxed it’s difficult to make a mistake,” said George adding an inverted commas gesture around the word ‘mistake’.
“And anyway, it would be so un-English to flatly correct someone, most of the little errors simply get passed by. How you stress the words in English is just as important,” George continued emphasising the word ‘stress’ with a warm, entreating tone. “For me, English comes as a package: words, grammar and…” Here George hesitated. “…most of all: manners.”
“I suppose I never really thought about it like that before,” responded Almudena. “But do you mean, everybody in the ERA has to know more about English etiquette before they can speak it well?”
“Oh, dear, am I sounding like one of those British cultural imperialists?” said George. “Like a British Council type who ends up becoming a Shakespeare book sales representative?”
Almudena tipped her head back and retorted. “Hey, careful, George, I learnt my English at the British Council School in Madrid! And I love my copies of Shakespeare!
“Oh, really? I’m so sorry, I didn’t realise, forgive me.” George fell momentarily silent.
“No, George, please, what were you saying? Please go on, I interrupted you.”
“I shouldn’t be so hard on my compatriots”, said George picking up his thread. “But what I mean is, nobody would have to learn English culture to speak better English. It’s just that I’ve learnt it’s best to have an openness, to see that words in any language are only half the story. But it seems to me that in English, where words come from – and there are many sources – and how they have changed and are changing, count just as much.”
Almudena nodded. “Jes, I know what you mean, George. I remember I was talking with Maxwell once and he was telling me the story about how much the word ‘nice’ has changed.”
“Oh, yes,” affirmed George, “that most English of words.”
“I didn’t know at all that it used to mean things like ‘silly’ and ‘stupid’. Why, it’s just the opposite now!”
“Well, there you go,” responded George. “Some people just think about words as things given. But they change through what looks to me much more like some sort of co-evolution, between people’s manners and the sounds the language makes.” George paused. “You know Maxwell, he certainly made us think. I reckon he, more than most, is the one who put me up to this idea of English as a truly open source language.”
“Was he spinning you another of his famous yarns?” added Almudena.
“In a way,” replied George. “It was one of Maxwell’s theories that the English have given away their culture, principally through their attitude towards their language, which has as few rules as necessary, just enough to stop it falling apart. Maxwell thought that English leaves so much room for individual interpretation, that’s the main reason it’s becoming so popular.”
“Jes, jes,” nodded Almudena.
“Maxwell thought that giving away their language was the most generous thing the British ever did. With so many bad things about the legacy of the British Empire, he felt some good had to come of it!”
“Oh, Maxwell and his genteel theories!” replied Almudena, showing that her interest in Shakespeare was no exaggeration. “It’s so true, what you’re saying. When I compare it with Spanish, English has hardly any rules and, when they exist, most English people I know say you don’t even have to follow them!”
Now it was Almudena who was searching in her mind how to express her relationship with English.
“For me, one of the nicest things about English is I never have to worry about using the word ‘You’”, she continued, with some authority, reflecting her bilingual upbringing. “It’s so democratic! No wonder, I often say to my husband, that pop music came out of English – they both belong to the individual!”
George found himself frowning, caught thinking about what Almudena was saying. “Yes, Maxwell would be delighted to hear you say that. You are taking his theory to new heights!”
Almudena smiled tenderly.
“You know, George,” she said, stressing the words to expand the empathy in the thoughts she was trying to convey. “Even when I look like I’m not listening to you, I am really taking it all in, believe me,” she added with a cheeky grin.
“And I promise you tomorrow morning, when I’m putting my makeup on in the mirror, I will look out for that glint in Maxwell’s eye shining right back at me!”