When “No” Actually Means “Yes”

Alexander Billinis

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“My family’s three-year sojourn in London was a great adventure and a linguistic one as well. On one particular occasion, after a long series of management meetings punctuated by British colloquialisms, I threw up my hands: ‘Such a strange language you speak, so different from English.’”—Alexander Billinis

Roaming East Roman

By Alexander Billinis

The author, searching for the right words, in Ephesus, Turkey.

The author, searching for the right words, in Ephesus, Turkey.

Alexander Billinis

CHICAGO Illinois—(Weekly Hubris)—8/1/2016—“Ne (No),” she said, in Bulgarian, to which I replied, “You know, of course, that in Greek, Ne means Da (Yes).” Talk about a recipe for confusion and misunderstanding, and we were dealing with one-syllable words alone here!

At present, my own linguistic wheelhouse includes seven languages, most of which I learned on the road, rather than in the classroom. This of course shows in my creative destruction of accepted usage (subject-verb and gender agreement, and declensions in any and all of my languages). And my long-suffering, English-language editors all concur that I am a hazard on the printed page. Just imagine, I tell them, in my defense, reading me in German or Serbian! Indeed, my facility in several languages has certainly reduced my mastery of any one of them.

Learning a language the experiential way is a holistic odyssey, a journey fraught with misunderstandings and, occasionally, great humor. Often enough, the former fosters, and is tempered by, the latter.

I have found, when forced by circumstance to translate across two or more of my languages, that word-for-word translation can only occur when the languages are very similar, for example, Bulgarian into Serbian, or when the languages, though different, have similar grammatical structures and cultural commonalities, such as Greek with either Serbian or Bulgarian. As a Greek, I “stole a linguistic march,” to paraphrase Patrick Leigh Fermor in Words of Mercury, by learning Bulgarian and Serbian. Not that this march is without its minefields: confusing “no” with “yes” may one day start a Third Balkan War.

There are other, more humorous linguistic faux pas.

My son went to pre-school in Greece, where the phrase used in Greek for children when they need to urinate, tsitsa, is an indelicate Serbian colloquialism for breasts. Though Bulgarian and Serbian are almost always mutually intelligible, the feminine word for a difficult woman in Bulgarian, trudna, means a pregnant woman in Serbian. Get that one wrong, as I have in the past, and you have some explaining to do!

Such are the difficulties when translating across languages, yet the issue comes up even when speakers share a language, but not a culture. The old saying that the British and Americans are divided by a common language certainly rings true, and I found the same to be the case for Spanish.

Peninsular Spanish, or Castillano, is very different from its various Latin American (or US) versions.

The word for “bugs” in one Hispanophone country, bichos, refers colloquially to male genitalia in another, and the term for “shell” in one country, concha, is slang for female genitalia somewhere else. In Chile, where I worked and lived for a time, a term of friendship among men is huevon, literally a derivative of “eggs,” but referring colloquially (and understandably so) to testicles.

Odd, how often confusing terms refer to private parts!

The first time a colleague called me huevon, I was insulted, but I was made to understand it was a term of endearment.

During a delay at Santiago airport, I shared some drinks with a Chilean. After a half hour of chat, I knew we had become friends when he slipped in a huevon: a threshold of fellowship had been crossed. Cross it next door, in Peru, and you’re likely to get your lights punched out.

Then, of course, there is Britain, home of English. My family’s three-year sojourn in London was a great adventure and a linguistic one as well. On one particular occasion, after a long series of management meetings punctuated by British colloquialisms, I threw up my hands: “Such a strange language you speak, so different from English.”

That went down well . . . .

Most peculiar of all to me was “Cockney Rhyming Slang.” Prior to living in London, I had neither heard of it nor been exposed to it. In this East-End argot, a particular word is preceded by rhymed words which may, or may not, have anything to do with the subject word. I learned about this particular sub-culture of the English language from a banking colleague, when he called me a “Bubble,” to the collective laughter of my colleagues. “OK,” I asked, once again bewildered. “What does that mean?”

“Greek, of Course! Bubble and Squeak: Greek,” my workmate explained. Hmm . . . .

Then, another colleague, referring to my “American side,” called me a “Septic Tank.” Again, I shot my familiar look of incomprehension. “Come on, Mate! Septic Tank: Yank!”

Perhaps I was finally catching on, “So, I guess I’m a Septic Bubble,” I exclaimed, to the collective laughter of my colleagues. I’d finally got it. By George, I’d got it.

Photo by Spyros Lagos.

Alexander Billinis

About Alexander Billinis

Obsessed with traces of lost empires (especially the Byzantine and the Hapsburg), Alexander Billinis self-identifies as an American-Generation-X-Liberal, but with a European’s faith in social democracy. An international banker who's spent much of his career in the Europe of the Financial Crisis, Billinis has most recently lived in Chicago and in Sombor, Serbia, in the multi-ethnic province of Vojvodina. Before that, he lived in the UK and Greece. A bi-national citizen of the United States and Greece, with a facility in several languages, this “Roaming East Roman” has now returned to the United States for the foreseeable future, unearthing his law degree to practice the law; and writing and lecturing on the side. His book, The Eagle has Two Faces: Journeys through Byzantine Europe, is a travelogue of the Balkans, Asia Minor, and Southern Italy. His second book, a novel, Hidden Mosaics: An Aegean Tale, reveals the common heritage of an Aegean littoral now divided up by exclusivist states. Both books are available via amazon.com and other online vendors.
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2 Responses to When “No” Actually Means “Yes”

  1. Will B says:

    Alex, your piece reminds me of my first realization that the classroom wasn’t where the joy in a new language lies. I’d adored playing with cheap puns and silly word play in English, but had seen German and English as stiff exercises in grammar and vocabulary. It wasn’t until a friend recounted his experience of a meal in a pretentious French restaurant with an even more pretentious waiter, failing in his attempt to pass himself off as French. My friend, throwing all propriety to the wind, finally snapped his fingers and called loudly, “Garceuse!” (sorry – I can’t do the HTML to make a cedilla!). That ridiculous little twist broke the academic bonds that French had held for me and opened up a world of linguistic play. It’s a delight to read through your “cautionary” descriptions in multiple languages.

  2. Skip Eisiminger says:

    It appears, Alexander, that you are an “Ottoman umpire.”
    Look forward to having coffee with you soon. Skip

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