After I had been an exchange student in Switzerland, I met with Prof. Uta Larkey, who IS the German Dept at Goucher College in Baltimore, to object to the results of my placement test, which would have had me in third semester German because my grammar was so bad. I had hardly said two sentences in my heavily Swiss-accented but very best High German, when Uta grinned and exclaimed, in German, “Oh, your accent is so quaint!” I felt like I’d just dropped in from Hicksville.
The same thing happened to me yesterday. Here in Jordan, there are two ways to pronounce the words in colloquial language containing the Arabic letter qaaf. If one prefers to sound Bedouin and therefore macho, one pronounces this letter like an English G. If one wishes to sound sophisticated, one prefers the Palestinian custom of dropping the letter qaaf in favor of a little hitch of the breath called a hamza, usually represented in English as an apostrophe (‘). Most women in Amman prefer the Palestinian accent. However, having learned my Arabic from the Bedouin in the village, I never learned to use the Palestinian accent, and often even find that the missing qaafs make it really hard for me to understand city people at all! Once again, I speak with a hick accent.
So yesterday morning I lent my pen (gellam) to a Teacher’s Assistant, and promptly forgot that I had loaned it at all, as things were crazy preparing for the first day of school. Later that afternoon, I passed the same TA in the hall and she called, “Maryah! Maryah! ‘ellamik! ‘ellamik!”
I’m translating in my head and thinking, “My flag? What flag? I don’t have a flag!” But I stopped anyway to see what she wanted.
Now, the student teacher in the fourth grade just happened to be standing there, and said to the TA, “You have to say gellam or she won’t know what you mean.” Suddenly I realized, the TA was trying to give me my pen back.
The TA, meanwhile, was incredulous. I get this frequently, the look that says, ‘How is it that a foreigner like you sounds like a bred-in-the-cloth Bedouin?’
“That’s right,” I said. “You’ll have to speak Bedouin to me. I don’t speak your city-talk!”