The Swede and the Nine Million Turnips
being, in a form verbose,
another tale of taking the English

West, Across the Ocean Sea

I was five years old when we moved to America, the formative event of my life, I guess. It was at or near the new year; I became six shortly afterwards. I got started in kindergarten pretty much right away, halfway through that school year, I guess. I didn't know a word of English, of course, so my mother wrote notes for me to take with me to kindergarten, that I would show the teacher if I needed anything. I don't remember how the notes looked exactly (I do remember using them), but I suppose she had written the same thing in Swedish on the other side, or some such. I remember asking for a new note in the first week or so, that I could use to ask if I could play with the toy dinosaurs. I also remember this because when I brought that note to kindergarten, and used it, another boy came up to me and asked, »Can I play too?« That was the first sentence I worked out in the English language.

Here's how it is: you mayn't believe it, but I remember it vividly. I remember the room, I remember the carpet (I was unused to carpeted floors; in Sweden we had none of them, in America they were everywhere. I remember liking the basement of our house because it was floored with stone tiles; I could play with my toy cars properly only there in the whole house), I remember the corner where the clear plastic bin with the toy dinosaurs was; hedged in by a shelf of some sort, which made me feel safe. And I remember the boy coming up to me — in my memory he's sort of timid, but I think he must have seen how scared I was, and careful for my sake. And I remember most of all, the blazing nail that fixes the rest of it in my mind, hearing and understanding. I believe — something I've thought about often — that I must have recognized the main part of the sentence from my note, »Can I play with the dinosaurs?«. You see? That leaves one word, and parsing the speech. (You know how it is when you first begin to learn a language: you hear garble with tiny snatches of intelligible word. I remember that too, although I don't need to: it's an experience I still have frequently.)

I said, »Okay«. I did this because people say that in Sweden too, so it was a word I could already say, and I knew it worked in English, because my mother had taught me that along with Yes and No, before I started in kindergarten. We played together mutely, not even making dinosaur noises: I because I didn't know how they sounded in English, and he, I suppose, so as not to scare me, still. (And I think he was the same sort of child I was, that quiet kind which really does not agree with a roomful of five-year-olds.) That boy became the best friend I had in America, for two and a half years, until we moved back.

So that's how I began.

Voyage Autour De Ma Chambre

Supposedly I did quite well on the standardized English tests and so on in school, after the first six months, but then, those were for primary school children. Nevertheless I never had to attend any English classes in school for the rest of my life, or not until I reached university, and those classes too were meant for such simpletons that I learnt nothing but how dim my classmates were. In consequence, whatever hold I have upon the English language is a product of my own efforts by other means, a procedure of events which has not been without its side effects: as anyone who's read part of my small and deformed nodeshare knows, my diction is essentially irreparably ruined. This is owing to my having learned and maintained large parts of the language by means of old books, after the age of eight. That isn't so much my fault, since the large majority of everything written since World War I is complete garbage, especially anything with a register above »comic book«, and so with a few notable exceptions I was left to the old, but the result is still the same: archaic vocabulary and phrasing in the hands of someone far too dumb to wield them, along with a good dose of »Gawrsh, Mick!«-level cartoonisms.

Furthermore, as those noders who have met me know, my accent is A) ludicrous, B) patchwork and C) subconsciously stolen from whomever I am talking to. A and B are to some extent caused by my attempts to curtail C, which latter behavior I have been exhibiting since I was a tiny individual. I have embarrassing stories about this from age 6 to age now, which you will never, ever hear.

When I was at university, I shared a flat with two friends, J. and J., and we would code-switch like mad, although hardly noticing; normally as soon as one of us ran up against a word he remembered in the other language before he could think of it in the one we were in, he would shift gears and the others would just follow along in that language. In general I think we conversed as much in English as we did in Swedish, if not more, for which I must take partial responsibility so as to avoid all of it. Since then I've uprooted and live in a country of English-speakers again, and so of course there is much less mixing these days.

So that's where I am now.

The Worst Place On Earth

A Swedish person of my generation will typically tell you that Swedes are good at English, partially out of an unrestrained vanity and partially because he has been taught that this is so. (He has also been taught the vanity.) This is a bald-faced, unqualified lie, although made up by someone else; most Swedes are dreadful at English, they're just happy to believe they're great. There are exceptions, of course, but those people have worked up their proficiency against the tide of a smug culture and an abysmal school system, one which is not just ineffective but actively hates excelling: it is no surprise, then, that most of them will have a background in some way similar to mine, whereby they've had a better avenue of learning.

The Swedish accent is a thing of ugliness absolute. It has one sole redeeming feature: it makes a person sound like an idiot hick. Swedes, by and large, are idiot hicks; thus this circumstance of the accent forces upon them an honesty which they are otherwise congenitally incapable of.

Here is how you recognize a person from The Worst Place On Earth by their speech:

  • They cannot pronounce þ or ð, so they pronounce them as t and d instead. Often, they will actually retroflect the sounds instead, a positively criminal act making them sound as though they suffered natal oxygen deprivation. (In case you're unfamiliar with the characters þ and ð, they represent the th-sounds in through and the, respectively. So it's not like they're incredibly common or anything.)
  • They are unable to cope with the results of the great vowel shift, and will typically ignore it about half the time.
  • The other half of the time, they will use vowel sounds that English does not even have, because apparently the reasonable procedure when uncertain is to go with something definitely wrong.

So that's where I was before, and maybe you can tell why that's a situation that doesn't persist.

And Now, Your Dénouement

So, this whole interminable screed has led up to this point (and dear Lord, if you made it this far, I don't know whether to praise you or gently suggest you have yourself committed!), where I was supposed to say a few words in the relevant context about our present venue, the website where you are reading this, Everything2. Unfortunately, I don't really have much to say about it. It's in English, yes. I write in English on it, yes, because drafting in another language seems absurdly clumsy and ineffective — I'd end up with fistfuls of phrases that work well in the draft language but are clunky in English. I haven't written more about my own country because I was going to hammer out one writeup on it and wash my hands of the subject forever, but that writeup has proven difficult because it bloats out every time I have a go at it, pressing against its seams with masses of invective like the rant you just read but on every possible topic.

I suppose the most sensible thing I can say is this: you probably never noticed, but I've been here for a long time, and this site, which is to say many of you, personally, have been a vital part of keeping my English alive, such as it is, and pointing me to other things also worth reading.

One of you, I forget whom, has or had a note on your homenode saying something like »Some people here seem to believe that they have given more to the site than it has given them; I cannot fathom that notion.«

I am not one of those people.

Thank you.