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The Herald February 17, 1989
Do you speak English?
Folks who travel abroad know the score before they leave.
They round up the appropriate language handbook, and brush up on words like "help" and "bathroom." Armed with a bewildered expression and a limited vocabulary, the tourist somehow manages to survive.
Sometimes it's not much easier for an American to wander in his own country.
While on a local bike ride with a longtime friend, I was told of an incident that occurred at the Catawba Nuclear Station, where my buddy works. It seems a man had been called in from way up north to conduct a seminar on a technical matter. The first session was running longer than expected, and some guys were getting antsy. Finally one guy got the instructor's attention and said in a typical Southern drawl, "Hey, look here. Hoss. Whadaya say we go ahead and dog it off kinda early today?"
The instructor gave the guy a blank look and answered, "Dahgg it ahff? That doesn't tell me a thing!" His honest response brought down the house and set the stage for some good natured Yankee-Rebel jokes that ran for the duration of the seminar.
I know how the instructor felt. I had a similar problem understanding the natives on my bike trip to the Gulf of Mexico. I stopped for a break in the Florida panhandle at a little gas station-grocery store that reminded me of some of the rural businesses around here. I was seated in al old straight-backed chair discussing my trip with the elderly lady who ran the place. She was asking questions that seemed out of context, and it appeared my answers were confusing her even more. Suddenly a man came through the door and said, "That must be your bicycle out there! Where ya headed?"
The lady behind the counter gasped, "Bicycle? You came all the way from South Carolina on a bicycle? I thought you meant you were riding a motorcycle!" She looked greatly relieved, as now my story made a lot more sense to her.
The man sat down near me and had me retell my adventure in great detail. Finally the conversation turned to other things and the man asked the lady behind the counter, "Did you keep current last night?"
Keep current. I was lost as to the meaning of that, unless he was asking her if she watched the news. The lady answered, "Yes, as far as I know, we kept current all night." That pretty well ruled out my theory about watching the news. I silently declared that I had no earthly idea what these two people were talking about.
The man went on. "Well, starting about eight o'clock, we lost ours for several hours. I accused the wife of not paying it, but she got a flashlight and showed me the bill."
The lady behind the counter responded, "We were watching TV at eight o'clock, so I know we kept ours."
At last. I know I must have looked relieved when I figured it out. These folks were talking about the power going off.
Their terminology was not a bit like ours. We say "power," where they say "current." While our power stays on, they keep current. When our power goes off, they lose current.
For once I kept my mouth shut and prevented myself from looking like a dumb tourist.
It's amazing how many ways the King's English can be spoken. The local pronunciation of a word can throw a tourist off just as much as the use of a strange phrase. Jimmy Buffett has noted that, "I don't pronounce my R's or G's when I'm speaking Southernese." This holds true in Bamberg, S.C., which the true natives refer to as "Bambug," It sounds great when they say it.
I fell victim to local pronunciation on a ride to my sister's house in the tiny settlement of Mountville, about 8 miles west of Clinton on S.C. 72. I stopped at a rural gas station for a drink and told the man there my sister's house was "a few miles past Clinton." I pronounced Clinton exactly as it is spelled, and he gave me a funny look. "Where?"
I said it again, and he still had no idea where I was going. This was strange, because I was less than 10 miles from Clinton at the time. I figured this old guy was crazy, and I started to get out my map to show him where he was.
Suddenly it dawned on him what I was saying. "Oh, you mean Clennon." I said "Clinton," and he repeated, "Clennon."
It was a stalemate.
I told my sister about this, and she informed that indeed Clinton has no "t" when said by the locals. A guy could get in trouble over a thing like that.
When I ride across America, there's no telling how many different languages I'll have to interpret, but that's all part of the fun. When traveling, you can't expect things to be as they are at home. That's why we travel in the first place.
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