An awkward conversation in Poland

Awkward conversationI have an old Polish friend with whom I speak German. Apart from a slight accent, his German is flawless.

One morning, on our way to a meeting in Warsaw, he told me: “Yesterday evening, I saw something very special on television. It was a programme about “schwarze Neger”. There was an interview as well. It was actually quite interesting. I have never seen anything like this before.”

“Schwarze Neger” literally translates as “black negroes”.

I was dumbstruck, and rather worried. What had gotten into my friend?

I was shocked by his choice of words. My friend is a politically correct person if ever there was one. I had never heard him use abusive or even slightly disrespectful language about anybody. What was going on here?

I was equally puzzled by the fact that he seemed to be saying that he had never seen a black person before in his life, not even on television. This man had had a long career as a diplomat. I knew for a fact that he had been offered the position of ambassador in an African country just a few years before. And certainly as a diplomat he must have met people from all parts of the world, at conferences and receptions and whatnot?

Had my friend had a stroke? Was there a neurolinguistic issue here? If he was saying frightful things like this in small talk – what could happen at the meeting we were headed for?

I didn’t know what to say. He, on the other hand, kept on talking merrily about the interesting television show. Fortunately, part of me kept on listening.

The year must have been 2002. An Austrian-born actor was running for governor in California. His name is usually pronounced with the emphasis on the first syllable. In Polish, the emphasis is virtually always on the last but one syllable of a word, so my friend had pronounced it that way. That had made the whole difference. Mystery solved.

What kind of pernickety and unforgiving kind of creature am I, that I didn’t want to understand my friend? This was not a bad mistake!

True. The problem was not that I didn’t understand him. The problem was that I thought I díd understand him. Because what he said made sense – well, kind of. If anybody had been talking to me about Berlùsconi, about Óbama or about Mrs Merquèlle, it wouldn’t have been a problem.

I remember a German friend of mine had a similar story from an encounter with a French penfriend. The first time they had met, the French girl had mentioned her history class about Hitler. She pronounced it the French way, omitting the h, stretching the “i” into an open “ee”, putting the emphasis on the last syllable and finishing off with a distinct French “r”: “eetlèrrr”. My German friend said she had never heard of that person. The French penfriend was shocked about the fact that German students were shielded from this black chapter in history.

When we speak a foreign language, we have an accent and we make pronunciation mistakes of various kinds. Most of the time, we get away with it because native speakers mentally translate our wrongly pronounced sounds into the correct ones. Sometimes, though, pronunciation mistakes can lead to misunderstandings. Don’t let that stop you.

Speakers, keep on speaking. Once in a while, check whether your audience is still with you. If they look confused, you may want to clear up a misunderstanding. Be open for corrections and enjoy getting better over time. Observation of native speakers and practising, gymnastics as it were, are key to better pronunciation.

Listeners, keep on listening. And when in doubt, ask. There may be a simple explanation to the strange things you seem to have heard.

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march, 2023

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