How to Speak Euro-English
By Michael Kiefer
Among the lesser-known entries in Leonardo DaVinci’s notebooks is a sketch for a perpetual-motion machine powered by the hot air from a single Italian tour guide.
They can talk forever. Every church, every piazza, every village is the most be-you-ti-ful in all of Italy. Then follows a stream of nouns and verbs that you recognize as English words, but somehow you can’t figure out the meaning of the sentences, because he’s pretty much speaking Italian with English words.
English is the universal language in Europe. It just may not be the same English you and I understand.
I call it Euro-English.
And it’s not just in Italy: Once I was in a group that was running a few minutes behind, which in Switzerland is a cardinal sin.
“I will invite you to follow me with a nice speedy leg,” the guide said to us.
To me, it sounded like she wanted a swift kick in the pants, but it made perfect sense to the other people on the walking city tour of Lausanne: a Spaniard, an Italian, a Belgian, a Russian, two Germans, a French- and a German-speaking Swiss. They dutifully picked up the pace. I took out my notebook and jotted down the sentence.
The tour was a planned event at a gathering of journalists from eight different countries. In Lausanne, the language on the streets is predominantly French, but the language of the gathering was English, though very few of the participants were native speakers.
The Swiss are phenomenal linguists. So, I have noticed, are Scandinavians. Not so much the citizens of other countries of Europe. They don’t seem to learn each others’ languages, sometimes because of deep-seated cultural conflicts.
Instead, they communicate with each other in English, or rather, in Euro-English, which, like Yiddish in another century, is an amalgam.
And it makes perfect sense to them, because the syntax and cognates of their own languages may be more similar to each other than they are to English.
“You go always straight,” I was told after asking for directions of a Swiss woman in Lugano, which in Euro-English, means, “It’s straight ahead.”
The native languages wired into our brains make second languages seem like Microsoft programs running on Apple computers. It’s just language interference.
A lot of Euro-English sentences start with “It is possible to…,” or “It is necessary to…” because that’s how sentences start in French and Spanish and Italian. In standard English, we state options with “either/or” constructions. In Euro-English, as in most European languages, it’s an “or/or” choice, as in, “Or you go this way, or you go that way.”
And don’t confuse a strong sense of time to translate to a sense of tense.
“Charlie Chaplin has been living a long time in Vevey, Switzerland,” I was told, though the man has been dead for decades. It makes sense to French or Italian speakers, because they use the present perfect tense in their languages to convey the past.
Once, in Italy, I heard a woman explain that cypress trees came to Italy from “actual Lebanon,” because in most languages, “actual” means “present-day,” and not “real.” It’s commonly heard in Euro-English.
Or, “This metro is very particular, because it has wooden wheels,” as I heard in Lausanne, meant that the metro was “unique,” not that it was “choosy” or “specific.”
And occasionally there will be a real whopper, like the time I heard a guide tell a group of female American tourists that gelato was “Like an orgasm in the mouth.”
Once upon a time, I was a college Spanish instructor, and as part of my training, I had to study French and Italian as well. No one complains about my accent in French when I am in France. I get complimented on my Spanish by Spanish-speakers.
But I can’t open my mouth in Italy. I am told my Italian has a Spanish accent, my Spanish is suspect because I speak it with a Mexican accent, and my English, worst of all, is American, whereas they speak good British English, or so they say.
Or maybe it’s Euro-English.
An Italian friend who works at a small magazine in Umbria recently posted a blurb about an upcoming festival in his town. It featured hand-crafted goods, and the organizers had named it “Week Hand.”
Now, in Italian, you could name something “Settimana Mano,” which we would probably translate as “the week of the hand.”
I sent my friend a nice note explaining that you really couldn’t make that construction in English.
“Oh, it’s a play on ‘weekend,’” he responded.
Uh, no, it doesn’t work, I told him. It sounds like “weak hand,” I said, which would be “Mano debole.” I suggested “Handicraft Week.”
He just said “Thank you very much,” with no intention of taking my advice.
In November, in the Italian city of Pesaro, I was visiting the birthplace of the composer, Gioachino Rossini, and the tour guide was describing Rossini’s beautiful soprano voice when he was a child. They would castrate young boys, the guide explained, so that they wouldn’t lose their voices to puberty.
“Rossini risked castration,” he said.
Those of us listening winced, and then, surprisingly, the guide started talking about Rossini’s children and grandchildren.
“Um, how could he have children if he was castrated?” I asked.
“I said he risked castration,” the guide countered.
“Yes,” I said, “so how did he have children?”
“He risked it.”
I eventually got through to him that his sentence didn’t mean what he thought, that sometimes things don’t translate across the languages. I told him about my friend’s “week hand” festival.
“Oh, that is a play on ‘weekend,’” he said immediately.
Once, on a plane home from Rome, I picked up the in-flight magazine, which was ostensibly bilingual, Italian-EuroEnglish-bilingual, that is.
I found my Horoscope.
“Mars is toning up and vitalizing your everyday life,” it said. “And you, overloaded as you are, can let off your best shots. Especially at work, generous and fertile. Your love life though is exciting as the biography of an angling referee. Fornication looks more prosperous than is has for a long time. Enjoy!”
Amused, I posted it to Facebook with a crack about translation.
Immediately, an Italian Facebook friend shot back an angry comment.
It was a very funny joke, she wrote, and I just didn’t get it.
Indeed, I did not. I told her it made no sense in English.
“That’s because you just don’t understand British humor or British English,” she wrote.
Or Euro English anyway.
Michael Kiefer is an award-winning journalist with The Arizona Republic and The USA Today Network. He mostly covers crime and punishment, but he’s also reported extensively from Europe and North and South America and has written for dozens of magazines including Playboy, Esquire, Self and Outside, where he was an associate editor. He is the author of six books, including IntoUmbria.