Blue beads and building blocks

On Saturday night I was chatting to Marios, Aysu and Maria about the Evil Eye. They were saying how, in the Eastern Mediterranean, complimenting a person or an item of clothing was akin to jinxing the item or person in question. So, for protection against the myriad compliments this blog provokes from my lovely reader-types , I should include a talisman of some description. (Look to the right –>)

I’d not heard of this superstition before – certainly, I’d heard of the Evil Eye, and I have a blue glass protection amulet given to me as a gift above the door to my flat, but I’d never heard of it as being linked to compliments. I’m generous with my compliments, and I love to receive them too – I’ve even been known to approach complete strangers on a whim to tell them how great they look! And when I think how often I complimented my Greek flatmate Eleni’s clothes or cooking while we lived together in Stirling, I realise that she must have thought I had it in for her! 🙂

Once a fortnight I write the email newsletter that accompanies the Macmillan Dictionary Blog. We cover all sorts of content related to language, with a particular focus on English as spoken around the world (this month is Mexican English month). We look at nuances of meaning within language, and misunderstandings leading from the slightest cultural differences. Again and again we come back to the ways in which failure to understand a word’s entire and exact definition can have hilarious or devastating consequences. Naturally, differences in what is considered polite or rude behaviour and superstitious beliefs can create the same issues of miscommunication.

Luckily, most people I know for whom English is a second (or third, or tenth…) language are familiar with our culture – at least enough to know that my compliments are not meant to offend! I’m sure Eleni realised I was not jinxing, or even coveting her food/boots… Well, okay, maybe I was coveting a little – but only in the nicest possible way!

However, I might be offended, in their position, by my ignorance of cultures outside of my own: much as, during the French exchange, my partner found me greedy for clearing my plate and uncouth for folding my hands in my lap, or as a German friend I once knew found our Japanese acquaintances rude for chewing with their mouths open and slurping their soup. I am often embarrassed by my fellow Brits’ flat refusal to learn foreign languages to a decent level: I’m as bad myself, my own languages extending to basic French, German and Spanish, the little self-taught pidgin Italian I picked up while backpacking and enough variations on “cheers” to get by in drinking establishments throughout Europe, being the fullness of my linguistic ability! I’d dearly love to be fluent in at least one second language (or even to be able to remember my A-level French grammar!) but not enough to do something about it. Like find time in my (admittedly packed) schedule to take an evening class and improve myself further…

However, the more I extend my vocabulary, the more I read up on the history of language and research the etymology of words, the more of foreign languages I find I understand. I cannot speak another language fluently, but I can decode written French, German and Spanish fairly competently, and grasp the general gist of listened-to languages whose characters I cannot even read. Thanks to our empiricism and, previous to that, our invasion-friendly island status, English is a mishmash of borrowed words and phrases from literally the world over. There are few lanaguages which have not had an impact on our vocabulary, and likewise, few nations whose cultures have not impinged in some way upon our own.

I commented on Sunday evening that I enjoyed being in the company of those from whom I can learn. In fact, there are very few people from whom we do not learn on a linguistic level every single day. Even my British – nay, English friends come from diverse enough corners of the country that their language differs to my own. Words particular to the North East often stem from ancient Germanic or Scandinavian languages, while the Midlands accent preserves  elements of archaic Middle English, and Anglo-Cornish is heavily laced with Celtic influences… At university, even, we had regular discussions over the merits of a stottie over a cob, a buttie over a bap, a barm cake over a bun – essentially, all distinct local terms for the bread roll part of our sandwich. And don’t even get me started on alleys and ginnels, snickets, jennels and cut-throughs!

Bringing this back around to my original point, it’s always fascinating to hear about cultural traditions and their roots. I’d never heard the ditty my South African colleague’s children recited while Trick or Treating on Hallowe’en until she told us an anecdote about her son at the end of last month. I’d always been led to believe that Hallowe’en was an American festival, not something we celebrated here, until Dapper tied it into Samhain for me, and ancient Pagan traditions. I was aware of Christmas’s Pagan “conincidences”, and Easter’s too – although I wasn’t aware that the Easter Bunny comes from the beilef that the Goddess Eostre took the form of a hare… And I had no idea that compliments could be so double-edged!

Still, I’ve got my blue bead in place now – so no need to stop! 😀

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