Today I am a week away from visiting my first English-speaking country for twenty years. I am a little concerned because when I visited Ireland for two short weeks, all those summers ago, I spent the whole time talking in a Yorkshire accent even though I’m from London – my cranial speech centres got a little messed up and my travelling companions were pretty amused.

This time, however, I have been hanging out with Gary, from Texas, seeing out my sojourn in Seoul under instruction about the countries ahead. During this time, then, my understanding of American Football has risen from 0.1% to about 10%; my intention to avoid Sarah Palin and not get in her bad books has been underscored; and my pronunciation and vocabulary has improved immensely, y’all.

Which is good because, while it was fun deciphering Cyrilic and Hangeul, imagine a whole continent where we can communicate without leafing through a phrasebook, resorting to sign language or not having to do with five kilos of black pepper because we’d momentarily forgotten the words for any other number or fraction.

Before we set out on this trip, back at Earthcircuit HQ, we carved up the linguistical map, apportioning sections to each of the crew members: Slavic Radka got Russia, Conny Korea (on account off her hand-writing resembling Korean), Dunia will be able to use something like her father’s tongue in Latin America while I was handed the responsibility of learning how to speak North American.

So, a few words to be getting along with:

Boondocking – Strictly speaking, boondocking is camping far away from civilization without any facilities such as water or electricity; roughing it. In a more general sense it has come to mean camping or parking anywhere without facilities, relying strictly on the comforts provided by the RV. Many RVers refer to spending the night in a motorway rest area or truck stop, as boondocking. English equivalent would be ‘parking up’.

Rig – Generally refers to an RV, truck, trailor or whatever combination of mobile home. English equivalent would be ‘vehicle’.

Snowbird – A person who moves from cold weather to warm in an RV, generally staying for the whole season. English equivalent would be ‘sensible person’.

Having learnt and then forgotten hundreds of languages in my time, I am looking forward to relaxing the old brain muscle. One cool thing that I found on this adventure, that never happened before, is that everyone, with access to a computer, is more than ready to use Google Translate in order to help the confused foreigner that they find before them. You have to hand it to Google – they really know how to change people’s relationship with the world around them (I won’t even start on Google Search, Maps or Streetview, etc). Called around the desk or counter to type in our request, we quickly learnt that, in Latvia, the best place to buy insurance for Russia would be at the border, for instance, or that, in Korea, you can’t buy a mobile phone or SIM card unless you have a government ID number. This saved us lots of time and bother. Of course it’s not perfect – in Czech Republic, on our missions to buy materials to convert Jigsaw, we were asking for some 3cm wide steel strips cut to 2m length. The Czech translation appeared on the screen and the lady nearly fell off her chair with laughter and, translating it back to English, we saw that we had asked her to take her clothes off.

Personally I find the philosophy of language fascinating. There are so many unanswered questions such as the degree to which our language informs our understanding of the world. It is so sad hearing about languages going extinct, knowing that a whole different way of seeing things has gone forever. A good article I read recently about the role of gender classification with respect to inanimate objects, for example, and differences in grammer generally, can be found here.

A question I have had buzzing around my head is the role of translation. In Europe, we have 30 odd languages to go round 300 odd million people. For an idea to spread it has to be translated and, thus, undergoes, surely, a process of criticism. In North America there is only one language – does that mean, especially given the power of the internet, ideas whizz round and round, snowballing without any brakes, until… well, reading the debates about the vitriol and language used in the political arenas there and some of the crazy ideas – or maybe looking at the kind of creativity that happens (like with Google, Facebook or WordPress) – it is certainly a question with wheels on it.

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