Lingua Franca

I’ve been having this series of moments of late that can only be adequately described using R.’s wonderful phrase, “light dawns over Marblehead,” the moment at which the utterly obvious becomes glaringly apparent. Perhaps it’s a function of travel, being removed from the quotidian details of my daily life and plunked into a series of relatively new places, or perhaps it’s just ceasing to be so bloody busy that I actually get to notice what’s going on around me. But I’m having repeated aha! moments in which the aha! is produced by something that’s embarrassingly evident only seconds later.

To wit: yesterday, in a restaurant. A French waitress delivering drinks to a table of young Italians. There is some confusion about the mineral water — was there meant to be one or two? There is a clear moment of miscommunication, and then one of the Italian kids says “only one. For me” in English. And all is clarified.

Now, the only languages I’ve studied are Romance languages — a fair bit of French, a lesser amount of Italian, a mere smattering of Spanish — and it was my distinct impression prior to this moment that French and Italian were sufficiently close in vocabulary and structure that, spoken slowly enough, and with an understanding of the differences in pronunciation, a native speaker of one could understand the other, at least well enough to figure out who had ordered the mineral water. But apparently not, or at least not always. And so, it suddenly occurs to me, English has become a kind of lingua franca, in which those who cannot make themselves understood in one another’s languages can negotiate.

As I say, light dawns over Marblehead.

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