Thursday, January 28, 2010

Speaking in tongues....

I was a French major in college, so maybe this post will be a wee bit biased, but I think it's awful that kids today only seem to want to take Spanish. OK, yes, I'm fully aware that Spanish is becoming more and more present in American culture, and it's certainly a wise decision to learn the language that may become the lingua franca in a few decades (well, before China decides to invade us, but that's another story). However, I feel that youths are shortchanging themselves by not learning multiple languages, particularly a language as beautiful and sophisticated as French. It seems like eons ago that French was considered the international language, and it intrigues me that it's been replaced by English, because I've always felt that English is the most difficult Western language to master, for a few reasons:

1) Our language, perhaps more than any other, borrows from other languages. We're like The Guy on the Couch, just freeloading off the words that other cultures have taken centuries to develop (and we never even help clean up after the parties....). The majority of our words come from Latin, Greek, and Germanic tongues; however, we have incorporated words from French (bouquet, chic), Arabic (algebra, alcohol, checkmate), Inuit (kayak), German (angst, kindergarten), Cantonese (ketchup), Japanese (tycoon), Spanish (alligator, ten-gallon hat), and about 50 other world languages. And when we can't find an appropriate word? We make them up! See: truthiness, ginormous, etc. To be fair, since the US is now the world's leading exporter of culture - God help us all - English words keep popping up in other languages, so maybe the increased exposure helps our foreign friends pick up a bit of English. However....

2) The number of expressions in English is quite mind-boggling, and I'm not even talking about "burn the midnight oil" or "put all your eggs in one basket." I mean the simplistic terms that we hardly ever think about; for example, take the word get - it means "reach", "achieve", "understand", "receive", etc. By adding a preposition, we totally change the meaning, so we end up with "get over" (move on), "get off" (um... find pleasure), "get up" (rise), "get out" (leave), "get across" (convey), "get down" (boogie), "get through" (endure), "get away" (escape), "get in" (enter), "get by" (manage), and so on and so forth.... Just a little tweak changes everything. And believe me, our language is most definitely tweaked.

3) The proper spelling and pronunciation of English can be a hassle. In French and Spanish (for the most part), what you see is what you get. One letter or letter combination is pronounced exactly the same across the board. In English, however, similarly spelled words can have different pronunciations depending on context; for example, the past tense of "I read the book" is also "I read the book." And partly as a result of our borrowing nature, there's hardly a consistent method for spelling or pronouncing words. There are at least six ways to pronounce "-ough" in our language. SIX! Which genius linguist thought that that was OK? And why didn't someone like Noah Webster just say "F**k this" and fix the problem?.... And while they were at it, eliminate the silent letters from words, too? We have words with a silent B (debt), C (indict), G (phlegm), H (rhyme), K (knit), M (mnemonic), N (damn), P (receipt), S (island), T (depot), and W (wrong). And that was just off the top of my head! If I sound a bit like Syme from 1984 there, I apologize, but our language could just be so much simpler. With all the spelling rules and their exceptions (and the exceptions to the exceptions), it's a wonder that anyone who wasn't born here can still be proficient in English.

But the sad reality, of course, is that most foreigners speak and write our language better than we do. So perhaps before we start teaching our kids how to say "Tengo una cita con Anita", maybe we should be teaching them the proper spelling for "lose", "ridiculous", and "definite", or the proper usage of "you're" and "your". In the end, though, I do believe that it is just as important for kids to learn multiple languages at an early age. It helps them become more aware of other cultures and worldviews, which usually means that they'll be less likely to turn into a miserable bigoted prick when they get older. And from my travels abroad (hey, Quebec counts), I can assure you that if you try to speak the native language - even if you suck at it - you'll be welcomed more warmly by the natives. Respect transcends language, but command of a language can earn you respect. So that's why I feel that learning foreign languages is always a sound investment.

[Oh, and for you fellas in college, I'll let you in on a little secret - French courses are loaded with gorgeous girls, and there is little to no competition from other guys. Granted, at the outset, most of the girls will probably think you're pédé, but hey, you've got a whole semester to change that. Go get 'em, tiger!]

A bientôt, mes amis! ("Peace out, bitches!")


Monday, January 18, 2010

Popping the Körsbar

So I had moved into my apartment back in November, and for the past couple of months, I lived a lifestyle that could best be described as "neo-bohemian" or "pathetic". Just on a whim one day, I decided to take stock of all the furniture in my bedroom. Here's the list:


Ta-da! I didn't even have a bed in my bedroom; I still don't, technically - been rocking an air mattress, and it's quite comfortable. Even still, I'm pretty sure there are tweakers living in a Brownsville apartment living off ramen and meth who have better-furnished living accommodations than I did. So, finally, I picked myself up and did what any red-blooded and cheapskate American would do - I, John Ciolfi, for the first time ever, went to IKEA.

Before I made my journey over to Paramus, the only thing I knew about IKEA was that it was a furniture store and that it was Swedish, thus bringing the country's total foreign output to six items (including ABBA, meatballs, Detroit Red Wings players, Chefs, and Bikini Teams - SIDE NOTE: Whatever happened to them? They were everywhere back in the early 90's and then just faded away. I can't imagine that looking at a group of tall, blonde, gorgeous, scantily-clad women would ever become passé. I think we need to start an investigation on this... I think I could find a few volunteers...). The following few hours I spent in there certainly was an eye-opening experience. For those of you who have not yet ventured into one, I will try to explain it as best I can.

First things first, the layout is very much unlike any other store I've been in. The whole showroom is one long twisting path with only a handful of shortcuts; so if you go in for more than one item (or don't know exactly what you're looking for in advance), you better bring along some comfortable shoes and possibly a couple of days' worth of rations (and if your significant other is falling behind, cut them loose. IKEA is not for the weak...). But now I get why the Swedes as a nation are so healthy - they get to the store and have to walk another half-mile just to buy a lightbulb. It's a pretty clever idea, actually - it probably draws impulse buys like crazy ("Ooh, look! Rolltop desks!!!"), and it's really logically planned-out.

Second, I'm pretty sure IKEA is an acronym for the Swedish phrase for "Get it yourself, asshole." Upon entering, you are given a pencil and a piece of paper. If you see an item you like, you write down the serial number, then walk over to a GIANT warehouse, find your product, and haul off your goods to the checkout counter (where, naturally, you do all the work yourself). There are actual [mouth-]breathing employees around the store, but they just kinda stand there and don't seem to have any particular usefulness, like a bunch of 25-year-olds who won't leave their parents' basements (not that I know anything about that... ahem...). And the boxes are all the same nondescript cardboard boxes that apparently have a lead lining; I bought a 3-drawer chest, and the box weighed 75 pounds - that was fun bringing it up the stairs to my place. My thighs still hate me. And they don't come assembled; they leave the fun to you, so when it fucks up and inevitably falls apart, you're the asshole who's to blame. Once again, clever. But still, for $40, I can't really complain - that was a damn good price for a cheap bastard like me.

So I bought my dresser, loaded it up in my car, and thought "I'm kinda hungry." (Shocking, I know....) I went back inside and they have a big cafe, and in keeping with the theme, it's pretty much all self-serve. There were two workers there - the cook/server guy, and the cashier. I swear, if I end up running a Fortune 500 business, I'm copying their model and hiring like 3 people. Anyway, I figured "When in Stockholm..." and ordered a plate of a dozen Swedish meatballs with lingonberry sauce (hell if I know what a lingonberry is, but it's frickin' delicious). Now, you'd think that I could handle 12 small meatballs (I know some of you are gonna make a joke there - How do you say "Bite me" in Swedish?). But those little bastards are filling; after six, my stomach sent a message to my brain going "RUN! GET TO THE CHOPPER!!!!" Frankly, when one of your body parts starts quoting 80's action movies, it's probably best just to follow orders.

So now I have a giant cardboard box full of dresser components lying on the floor in my room; I'll try to put it together at some point this week and bring my furniture total to a still-less-than-respectable two. I may even take pictures so you punks can laugh at my expense (like you don't already). Now if you'll excuse me, I'm gonna look for some lingonberry recipes. I've even started watching this chef on TV for ideas, but for the life of me, I still can't understand what the hell he's saying....

Bork, Bork, Bork,