Sunday, May 30, 2010


There are lots of Americans on the streets of the Ruhrgebiet right now. Maybe it's the effect of the Kulturhauptstadt celebration going on this year, or it could have some other cause I'm not aware of, but they're impossible to miss in a crowd. There's something about the American accent that gives the voice a sharper edge. It cuts through a background pattern of other voices that blend easily with one another. And then there's the content. Americans prefer one phrase that I hear often when walking in a crowd and it's instantly recognizable:

"And I'm like..."

I never get to find out what they're like, because the conclusion to the phrase is optical, not aural. Presumably at the proper moment, the speaker makes a face of some kind to demonstrate just exactly what they are like. In a crowd of moving people, it's usually not possible to identify the speaker and satisfy my curiosity. I move through the crowd, knowing that I'm surrounded by people who are like something, but never knowing exactly what. It's just a little frustrating.

With Europeans speaking English this is never a problem. Since it's not their mother tongue, they haven't yet mastered the skills of discourse with a severely limited vocabulary. Where Americans can carry on a conversation for several minutes, cleverly limiting themselves to only a handful of words, Europeans are forced to fall back on a wide vocabulary. It was nowhere so clearly evident as in the Euro Vision Song Competition I watched last night on TV, televised from Oslo, a city where the citizenry is notorious for having to depend on a knowledge of grammar and vocabulary as a kind of coping skill in English.

I don't think the average American is aware of Euro Vision, but in Europe it's a monster event. What intrigued me about last night's performance was primarily the role that language played, and in particular, the English language. In the early years of the competition, it was understood that each country would perform in their own national language. Later, strict rules insured compliance. But in 1973, the rule was relaxed and that was the year ABBA won with Waterloo. The floodgates were officially opened on English and everyone got on board.

In last night's performance, well more than half of the singers performed in English and it clearly demonstrated a curious fact: English speaking countries are no longer leading the way when it comes to grammar and pronunciation development. These aspects of language are always in flux, and previously they shifted according to trends within the regions where English was spoken as a primary language. I believe now, foreign speakers are influencing English more than we are.

The German entry to this year's competition, Satellite, sung by the 18 year old sensation from Hannover, Lena, is a good example of this trend. Lena speaks beautiful English, (hampered as she is by a too large vocabulary and a lot of useless knowledge of grammar) but her pronunciation is naturally not that of a native speaker. When she sings, she subtly shifts the stress in certain words, or alters the glottal stop in others, creating a pattern that's a little tricky for me to understand. But the fact is, it sounds great. The words are slurred and inflected in a way that comes across as innovative and really appealing. Satellite is a little too "Pop" oriented for my tastes, but no one could deny that it's catchy. Plus, Lena's somewhat spastic stage presence was a welcome relief from the schmaltzy, over produced performances of some other contestants. (Yes, I'm thinking about Russia here.) It was a fact recognized by the voting public: Lena won in a landslide.

Lena interviewed after her win by Norwegian media cyborg, Erik Solbakken.

As the voting was announced last night from the capitals of Europe, I believe I'm correct in saying that the only country that did not give its results in English, was, predictably, France. Which puts the French in the odd position of having about as much influence over the shaping of spoken English as we have in America. Like the French, we Americans speak as little English as possible. We like to stick with one verb tense, (when was the last time you heard someone say "And I have been like...." or "I would have been like...?" ) a handful of simple words and many of us have abandoned adjectives and verbs almost entirely. Meanwhile, our language sails on without us, growing all the while. I can imagine a time when many of us won't be able to understand spoken English at all. And how does the average American feel about that? They're like... "Whatever?"

Their apathy is probably attributable to a blind faith in the power of the American Pop Cultural Juggernaut. It seems to roll over everything in its path and always triumphs in the end. It probably will in the case of spoken English too, in spite of my concerns. It certainly didn't escape my notice that in this competition, which is closed to non-Europeans, it was an American, Julie Frost, who co-wrote the winning song with the Dane, John Gordon. I admire the French for their courage, but I hope they're buying shares in Disney. Enjoy the video.


Bengt Washburn said...

Like totally excellent.

Em said...

haha. Things to be proud of.

Very interesting post Chris. And I did enjoy the arm/head swinging artist Lena. Sort of reminds me of how I sing when I'm alone.

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Christopher T. Terry said...

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