Whose brand of English should they be learning?

May 08, 2004|By ROB KASPER

ANYBODY WHO has ever been stuck in the slow lane of a fast-food restaurant is probably familiar with the feeling of frustration Comptroller William Donald Schaefer expressed this week at having to wait in line at an area McDonald's.

Never known for his patience, Schaefer was annoyed because the woman waiting on him was having difficulty understanding English.

"I don't want to adjust to another language. This is the United States. I think they ought to adjust to us," Schaefer said. "The people who come here," he went on to say, should "become Americanized and speak the language."

His remarks, delivered at a meeting of the state Board of Public Works and widely reported in the media, were promptly criticized by advocates for immigrants as well as by some fellow politicians. Schaefer, who has been governor of the state and mayor of Baltimore, said that he would "probably lose the Latin votes and all the other votes, but it is not right. It is not right."

While others debated the tone and appropriateness of Schaefer's statement, I began to wonder what version of the language he wanted newcomers to Maryland to speak.

Would it be his beloved Baltimorese?

To get an idea of how that restaurant transaction might sound, I called Gordon Beard, author of Basic Baltimorese III, a 32-page, $4 work. Beard, 78, said he has known the 83-year-old Schaefer for a number of years. The two exchange Christmas cards and Schaefer has told him, Beard said, that the book "uses all my words."

A restaurant worker fluent in Baltimorese would greet Schaefer, Beard said, as either "Mr. Mare" or "gubnor."

If Schaefer ordered a hamburger, the properly trained worker would inquire, Beard said, if he wanted toppings on his "samwich."

During the beverage selection, the worker would be schooled to ask if the customer wanted a soda or a glass of "warder."

As for dessert, someone speaking the native tongue might suggest a "slice of lemon moran pie," Beard said.

This style of speech might sound good in the city, but over on the Eastern Shore, newcomers would have to learn a different lingo. At least that's what Helen Chappell told me.

Chappell is the author of several novels set in the mythical Eastern Shore community of Oysterback. The latest from her publisher, Simon & Schuster, is A Whole World of Trouble. A sequel, Heartbreak at The Curl Up 'n' Dye Salon de Beaute, will be out next year, she said.

A new restaurant worker in her realm would have to know, Chappell said, that "co cola" is what the popular soft drink is called, especially on the section of the shore situated below the Choptank River.

Another shore beverage, not sold in fast-food restaurants, but popular with some residents is "bieer." This, Chappell explained, is "beer pronounced with three syllables."

Chickens are raised and eaten in great numbers on the Eastern Shore and a newcomer should know, Chappell said, that the preferred way to cook them, is to "put them in a fryaar."

On the seafood side of the menu, three descriptors a restaurant staffer should know, she said are "rock," "trot" and "sawf crabs." In other parts of the world, where the fish is not as fresh and the language is not as vivid, these menu items are called striped bass, sea trout and soft-shell crabs.

After thinking about what Beard and Chappell told me, it seemed to me that if newcomers learned to speak Baltimorese or Eastern Shorese, people from other parts of the state might have trouble understanding them. I recognize that these are regional dialects developed from years of speaking a language many immigrants are trying to learn.

Yet even in a state as small as Maryland, language has its provincial elements. The key, I guess, is to get beyond them, to welcome worthy newcomers, even if they sound different.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.