Wednesday, July 15, 2009

The Austin Chronicles: The Language Barrier

As I've mentioned before, I was raised in California, a place with a temperate climate and non-invasive bugs. When I chose my college for undergrad, I had one requirement: it must not snow there. Obviously that limited my options, so when I applied to graduate school I thought I would expand my horizons.

When it came down to it, I had two places to choose from: Boston, Massachusetts or Austin, Texas. After my summer in Washingon, DC I thought I was ready to test my weather survival skills, but then I remembered that it wasn't just the weather that is different between the east and west coasts. There is also a language barrier.

Somehow I have managed not to be able to speak Spanish, despite three years of classes in school, growing up in a town that is almost 60% Latino, and parents who are fluent. However, while conjugating a sentence beyond giving basic directions or ordering tacos sends me into a brain-melting panic, I can understand quite a bit. The Spanish language (or perhaps more accurately in my home town, the Chicano dialect) is so ingrained in California culture that even if you are a gringa like me and can't physically can't trill an "rr", the basic rules of pronunciation are ingrained in you, since at one point in your life you will live in a city that begins with "San" or "Santa" (nod to imperialist history here), and enchiladas and tamales are considered comfort food.

As I was weighing my options (after living in San Francisco, neither snow nor heat sounded so great) I remembered what occurred shortly after I arrived in Washington, DC. And which is why I ultimately chose Austin.

After flying to DC, I spent my first night in the mid-Atlantic with my college roommate whose parents lived in Virgina. She was going to help me buy all the stuff that wouldn't fit in my two giant suitcases (like extra-long twin sheets and a pillow) and then drive me up to DC to settle into my dorm room.

The whole night she kept talking about how we were going to go this department store "Hecks" to buy things. It wasn't until we pulled into the parking lot the next day that I realized the department store was not named after a G-rated curse word, but after a family - Hecht's.

The night before we left, we had looked up directions to my dorm online, but they were a little odd so I called the dorm's front desk to double check. The directions were indeed a little off, so I wrote down the street names the receptionist gave me. Unfortunately, my California ear was not trained to German and Native American words and the way I thought they were spelled was not even close to their actual spelling. It took a couple of conversations with gas station attendants and folks on the street before we finally made it to the dorms.

With that (and the snow and tuition costs) in mind, I decided that going to a state with a similar demographic would be smarter because they would have the same pronunciation rules. For example:
  • All double L's are pronounced like a Y (tor-tee-ya)
  • If a letter has some kind of extra marking on it (like a tilde or accent) then it is a clue to the pronunciation of that word. They are also subtle hints: accents add flair which means that syllable is extra special. Tilde's are squiggly which means that isn't a boring old N but something with a little wiggle room (mon-yawn-a)
Okay sure, most non-Spanish speaking Californians will screw them up sometime, but I've only ever heard tortilla mispronounced by those poor souls who have never eaten an advocado. However, there are a few that are pretty basic rules that form the basis for pretty much every proper name or menu item in California:
  • If there is an E at the end of a word it isn't silent, and is pronounced like a soft A (tamale)
  • I sounds like E (fiesta)
  • A is never pronounced harshly (like they do in Boston, or in flavor)
  • If a word starts with a J then it is pronounced like an H. Again, there are clues. It is usually preceded by the ubiquitous San, Santa, La or El (San Jose or La Jolla)
  • If G is followed by U is is pronounced like a W (Guadalajara)
It turns out I was very, very wrong. In Texas, the Spanish language has also gone the way of Mexican food - it has been bastardized.

To get to campus I took the (free!) shuttle that stopped just a block from my breakfast nook. While it was strange to get on a bus and not pay, or even have to show a student ID, it got even weirder when the automated voice began announcing stops. In the span of two minutes I heard the disembodied voice pronounce San Jacinto with a hard A and J and pronounce every letter in Guadalupe separately, except for the last E which they left off.

Weird. Maybe its like the disembodied voice in the San Francisco underground MUNI system that for some reason pronounces Embarcadero like Embarcadera, just a glitch in the programming. But, nope. Every single person in Austin says "I'll meet you on G-wad-a-loop" and "its the building on Sand-ja-sin-toe."

I quickly learned that I needed to pronounce these names the same way, or no one would know where the hell I was or where I was going, so I began saying "Okay, I'll see you on G-wad-a-loop."

A few weeks after I resigned myself to talking like a gringa, I was going to meet a friend at a bar. He called and said, "I'll meet you at nine. It's on the corner of 6th Street and Net-ches." At this point I had been in Austin a few weeks. I'd figured out that the 1 Loop was a freeway that was also called MoPac and didn't actually loop, that Martin Luther King Boulevard was strangely in a nice part of town, and that Koenig Lane was pronounced Cane-ig and turned into Allendale, Northland and eventually Ranch Road 2222 without warning. I had also been to 6th Street and to a street I was pretty sure a Texan would pronounce "Net-ches," so I decided it would be my first test to see how comfortable I was in the city. I didn't look at my Thomas Guide or Google maps.

Fifteen minutes later, I parked my car and was standing on the corner, but the bar was nowhere to be found. I called my friend:
Me: Its on 6th and Net-ches, right?

Friend: Yep, are you here?

Yeah, but I don't see it.

I'll come out and meet you....I don't see you. Where are you?

On the corner of 6th and Net-ches.

No, you aren't.

Okay, spell Net-ches for me.

N-E-C-H-E-S, what street are you on?

In an almost perfect spanish accent he said, "Oh, you are on New-a-says. That is a different street."


  1. Can't say that I have, Mindy.
    Though I did go to Gruene!


be nice.


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