Monday, 2 September 2013

For Whom the Bell Tolls

I heard the poet and writer Michael Rosen on Saturday Live Radio 4 this morning say that the place name Nice, i.e the town in France, was at odds with the English understanding in his head of “nice”, because events he was researching that took place there during the Second World War that blighted his family were by no means nice. In the interview he had been talking about investigating, decoding and interpreting events using language. The interviewee seemed to brush over this one comment about Nice, the one that Michael Rosen seemed the most excited about. Perhaps it sounded too obvious? One is an town another an adjective, why mix them up? But I also share his fascination at those "strange" as he put it things that happen when two languages overlap, become mismatched or echo in a way that leads you to ask questions you may have never have thought of. Is Nice really nice? 

This made me think in general about how the understanding of your own language changes when you live in another country and how you may apply the meaning of another language, unwittingly, to your own when you relocate.

I am living in an area of Edinburgh now called Tollcross, having just moved from Germany where I lived for 14 years. Now I have a German language association with that place name, because the adjective “toll” means “excellent or great” in German, but also there is another meaning of the word as I discovered in a coffee shop in Berlin many year ago.

I went to get a takeaway coffee and saw some amazing looking biscuits on the counter in a jar; lumpy, misshapen and stuffed with nuts and white chocolate pieces with a sign that said “Tollhaus Keks.” Mmmm, yeah, “fantastic and great” cakes, I thought. But then the man in the shop told me that “toll” is also an outdated word for “mad”, (or perhaps“nutty” might suit these biscuits better), so the name translates as “madhouse biscuits”.

So now in Tollcross, destinations on buses, road signs and street names in and around the area all lead me to believe I am heading either towards a great place, a fantastic place, or on a bus ride straight to bedlam.

Sometimes, in language as in life, you tread a fine line.

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