This is my first week of school! It’s been quite a while. Did you know, I graduated high school in 2004? That seems to me like a terribly long time ago. I’m sure to my parents’ generation, it seems a lot more recent.
I feel that I ought to cover my first few days of school in a cogent, logical manner. I also feel disinclined to do so. So instead of a neatly bulleted outline, you get a kaleidoscope view of my life. That’s what it looks like from here, anyway.
Firstly, happy birthday to my baby sister! She is the best singer I know and I’m proud of her. It never ceases to blow my mind that she grew up into a really interesting person while I wasn’t watching. How did I miss that?
Second of all: Write me letters! Or email! I love correspondence. And I want to know what’s going on in all of your lives. I just started a blog… well for a few reasons, but none of them are that I don’t mean to write letters. 🙂
Last week (Freshers week), I went to the societies fair to see what everyone else was up to. I failed to join the Bulgarian society, missed out on the chorale auditions because they had packed up for the night, received a flyer good for a free ‘toasty’ at any time—is that a grilled-cheese sandwich?—and pushed my way through the kilted dancers to make my escape. I am now the proud member of the Harry Potter Society and LangSoc, the linguistics society—they promised me scrabble— and the New Scottish Country Dance Society. Probably also the Modern Dance Society, as they offer beginner ballet and Irish Step. Am I going to be able to stand if I go to both Irish Step class and the Scottish Dance social on Thursday? Maybe, maybe not.
Linguistics is… odd. Well, first I should say, university is odd. I feel the same disorientation now that I have when settling into other foreign countries, along with a hefty dose of cognitive dissonance as my brain tries to connect a language nominally the same with a culture very different. In the past, when I’ve settled into a new country, the language was different (German). Now it’s not, but the foreign-ness is not substantially lessened.
For example, the professors sign emails with their first names, so I think that’s how they mean to be addressed. It’s going to be some time before I dare try it, though. I had not expected this level of informality in the UK. It’s possible, too, that the difference is not in geography, but in our relative status; that they are using their first names because we’re graduate students, and may, in a very few years, be their colleagues. During graduation week at my alma mater, my German professors gave me leave to call them by their first names and even to use du, the informal form of address. This was a Big Deal (although I believe they only required the use of the more formal Sie in class to be sure we would not embarrass ourselves with the incorrect address in Germany).
In the face of all this foreign-ness, I’ve a particularly strong desire not to transgress social norms here, stemming from a steady aversion to be seen as ‘acting American’ in a negative sense. I’ve no objection to being American, or being known to be American, but I should hate to have people attribute my faux-pas to the rudeness of Americans in general.
For example, some years ago in Germany, a teacher commented on how you could tell the nationalities of the foreign students not just by their accents, but by their demeanor: the eastern European girls were quiet and shy when speaking in class, the American girls loud. I resented it enormously, though there was no polite way to say so at the time. I spoke clearly out of respect for my classmates, so that they wouldn’t have to strain to hear me or ask me to repeat myself. I was being polite, not rude. How dare she attribute my actions to a negative generalisation about my nationality?
Having got that off my chest, though, I can see that the call to action is clear: I shall be polite and ladylike—mostly—and to anyone who makes rude generalisations based on my actions, I wish them as much satisfaction as such opinions generally offer.
Well. That was interesting. But what’s a blog without an occasional rant?
Getting back to my courses, where no one has shown any sign of judging anyone else: The single most surprising factor is the easy reference many of the lecturers make to ‘Standard English’. While agreeing on one hand that there are many varieties of English and that one is not inherently ‘better’ than another, they often (after making that point) refer unselfconsciously to a ‘Standard’ English to which we compare other Englishes… a British sort of English to which I have very little recourse. For example, it turns out that in Standard English, one ‘has flu’. One does not ‘have the flu’.
Wait, what? That sounds ridiculous.
In the United States, there may be certain lexical and pronunciation differences between dialects. An educated professional (read: I), however, from any part of the country, knows, based on books and other media, what are reasonable grammatical constructions (at least, for formal writing) and what are not. For the sake of drawing comparisons with other American varieties, we have American Modern English. For the sake of drawing comparisons with other British varieties, we have British Standard English.
Calling British Standard English ‘Standard English’ seems like Britain just planted a tiny Union Jack on my linguistic processing centers. British imperialism has claimed my scholarly writing. Bad England.
All of a sudden, I don’t have recourse to the standard any more. Like the students whose first language is not English (who are legion), I’m going to have to compare two relatively foreign languages. Unlike said students, I’ve never had instruction in one of them.
We did a survey in one class, asking what each student would call the smallest finger on the hand, or the best room in the house, where you would take guests. The students with English as their first language were to write down what they would call it, the foreign students to guess what Standard English would say. Needless to say, the foreign students have a better grasp on ‘Standard English’ vocabulary than I have, based simply on a lack of alternatives.
I’ve been used to leaving out colloquialisms and regional speech from my professional work. Now, however, what I consider professional, reasonably un-local good grammar and vocabulary is no longer, for the next four years, going to be the standard for good English. And the extent to which that rocks my world has me reeling.
o O o
In other news, I’ve downloaded three linguist-friendly fonts to my computer. The Scots and Scottish English course I’ve signed up for as my option course promises to be especially interesting, and my core courses and the two I’m auditing look promising, as well. I have dance classes three nights a week and am considering a membership for the university pool for the other days. NTS has not deserted me for the joys of sheep-herding.
And, joy of joys, my spice and tea cupboard is stocked enough now to give off a tantalizing whiff whenever I open it. It’s delightfully homey.