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THE SOUND OF LANGUAGES or DON'T SAY "FACA", YOU "SAKANA"....

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Chances are that very few young people will ever know that oldsters once had to attend Mass guessing at what the priest was saying. My own University diploma is in Latin, a fact that sometime made one of my granddaughters wonder whether I had graduated from seminary and, if so, why I was married. Or was I living with her grandmother in sin? Actually, at my age, a little sin would probably do wonders for me. I've even been thinking of checking into a Holiday Inn with my wife under one of my assumed names. But that's another story...

Human interpretations of foreign languages can sometimes lead one into trouble. I'll never forget my first time in Japan when a geisha who tried to be quite hospitable to me held up a tidbit in a pair of chopsticks and, while looking at me with a smile, inquired: "Sakana?"

My first reaction was to ask myself quietly: "What did I do to her?" Until I realized that what she was doing was asking me if I wanted a piece of fish.

To go back further into time, I remember the first dirty English word I ever learned. I had been admitted to the United States only a few hours before. My father, who had come to this country two years prior to my mother and me, called us aside in our temporary apartment (My cousin's attic) and while holding up a knife asked in Portuguese: "Vocês sabem isto que é?" (Do you know what this is?). "É uma faca," (It's a knife) I answered wisely. My father then looked at me quite sternly and told me that I should never again use that word in America. "Que palavra?" (What word?), I asked. This, he said holding up the knife once again. "He then went on to tell me that, even if I were speaking Portuguese, I was under orders to use any name, but the name of that utensil. I could call it the Portuguese equivalent of penknife, or, for that matter, even use the English word "knife" in my Portuguese conversation.

"But, what does that word mean?"I asked.

"Never mind," he replied. "Just don't ever use it again."

There are times, however, when, as our minds wonder, we are suddenly transported into unexpected questions, or conclusions. Example: Brazilians use a lovely Angolan word for buttocks - BUNDA. One cold morning, however, as I was walking from my hotel in Frankfurt, Germany, to the Buchmesse, I found myself behind a young woman who filled her slacks quite nicely. I confess that, for about a minute, I looked closely in appreciation.
Suddenly, my reverie was broken as I heard two German men who were also behind the young woman say something about "Bundes Republik". "My God," I suddenly caught myself saying. "Don't tell me that word is here already."
As I came to, I then realized that they were talking about the "Federal Republic".

I have many other such stories. Someday I may just tell them all.

Manuel L. Ponte
St. Louis, Missouri
 
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