Sunday, October 11, 2009

San Francisco: Voices

Sitting behind two Mandarin-speakers on the bus, I'm transfixed. They are chatting softly, and their language has a sound I don't hear often, a swish-swish sound--as graceful as French. It seems appropriate that Mandarin is the Chinese language of diplomacy--it has a certain dignity and subtlety.

Most of our Chinese neighbors speak Cantonese, the primary language of Hong Kong, the jumping-off place en route to San Francisco. In its native form it's highly tonal, easy to identify and wildly interesting to my Western ear.

Our friend Claudia speaks German-accented English. I can imagine her as a child, conjugating verbs at the knee of her linguist father. Claudia's husband John speaks Russian-accented English, and lapses into Russian when he can't find the right English expression.

Our contractor's booming voice is Irish. "Ay! She's a fine hound," he says to Cleo as he enters the front door. It's the exuberant sound of John Campbell's Pub on St. Pat's Day, rollicking and rough.

John's workmen all speak Spanish. They communicate in smiles and broken English, and I've tried to bridge the gap with what little Spanish I've picked up along the way. They know how to acknowledge my questions and thanks, and I know how to express some approximation of, "please don't hurt yourself doing that."

With everyone speaking his own brand of English, it's a maze of accents. If the conversation stalls, someone in the crowd jumps in to fill in the blanks. Everyone uses certain untranslatable American words. Background noise--a conversation in Cantonese-- suddenly takes shape when the term "traffic school" leaps out of the verbal maze.

Even with its wealth of conversational color, we don't hear much African-American speech in San Francisco, and I miss that. Walking in sunshine on lower Fillmore--the jazz district--I hear the lively, syncopated cadences that were a part of my childhood. These voices wrap around me like a well-worn shawl.
painting: "Voices"
ink and watercolor on silk