Thursday, February 21, 2008

Language Notes Part 1

JenniferEverybody new that I meet asks me where I am from. I always say "Michigan," and they almost always ask, "Oh, you're American?" I would have thought that it was obvious I was American the moment I opened my mouth and spoke, but apparently not. Joe points out that to them I'm just one more person who can't speak Swedish, so I speak English, with some kind of accent. (And apparently several people who I had talked to before thought I was Brazilian, because of the pennants of two São Paulo soccer teams hanging in my office, which are visible from the hallway.)

Similarly, my inability to discriminate among Swedish accents surprises them. Early in the evening a couple weeks ago, it came up with my doctoral student office mate, S., and the student in the next office over, V., who had come over to visit. Since I didn't really know S. and V. well, I asked where they were from. They told me, and V. said "You really can't tell the difference in the way we speak?" I confessed I couldn't, and asked them to demonstrate, but they refused on the grounds that it would be fake to do it knowing I was listening for it. Then suddenly the Swedish Chef came up (for reasons that will become clear), when out of the blue V. said that the Swedish Chef is funny and all but that he just didn't sound Swedish.

Applaud my forbearance, gentle readers. I bit my lip and did not say what I was thinking, which is that yes, Swedish does in fact sound kind of like that.

Thankfully, S. disagreed with V. on this point. He had heard that the Swedish Chef was based on an actual Swedish cook's guest appearance on American TV, long ago, who got nervous when the camera started rolling and started muttering under his breath in Swedish. V. said no, he didn't believe it. S. explained to me that the cook in question (Lars Bäckman) is from same state as S. is, and therefore has the same accent. V. said no, no, not even S. ever sounds like that. S. said that he could easily imagine talking to himself like that, if he were nervous, or alone and reciting instructions to himself. He proceeded to demonstrate, pretending to be mixing something in a bowl and muttering.

I laughed politely at this, but laughing politely also took self-discipline, because the truth is he sounded exactly like the Swedish Chef, and I was about to bust a gut. A "Muppet Show" writer denies that Bäckman was Henson's inspiration, but I think I'll believe S. on this one. Even V. admitted that S. sounded just about right. Whether Bäckman was the inspiration or not, there can be no further doubt: the Swedish Chef is from Dalarna, home of colorful wooden horses and a lovely sing-song accent. I just hope I can resist ever asking S. to do that Swedish Chef thing again.

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