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by Lou Charloff
My father was a very funny man, but not always on purpose.
My whole life long, we would spend hours on end conversing in Yiddish. He was a great raconteur, spoke a beautiful literary Yiddish, and I enjoyed each of our talks enormously. When I came home from the army, he was intrigued by the work I had been doing as a court interpreter in German and a strange thought occurred to him.
Relying on the kinship between the two languages, he decided that if he were to mispronounce Yiddish, he would be talking something very close to German, I, of course, found this to be very funny. Fortunately, our relationship was such that he never considered it to be disrespectful if I made fun of him. And, as you can imagine, I took full advantage of the opportunities this misconception gave me.
Some years later, my wife Gertrude and I spent a short time in Portugal. Neither of us, of course, spoke any Portuguese. We all know that nobody speaks Portuguese except for the local residents and those crazy Brazilians. However, I quickly learned that, if I mispronounced Spanish, I could frequently make myself understood.
The primary clue was that the letter S was usually pronounced as if it were Sh. And with that important hint, I was off and running.
One day in Lisbon, a traffic cop stopped me. Like many of the local policemen, he was quite a short man, but don’t let that deceive you. He was as tough – and tough-looking – as any policeman in the world, and he took traffic regulations very seriously. The first thing we established was that he spoke not one blessed word of English. The second thing we established was his conviction that I had gone through a red light.
Stony-faced and without even one slight hint of international friendliness, he demanded that I pay a fine to him. Right there on the spot! No summons, no courtroom, no hearing – just get up the cash and pay it now. He wanted twenty escudos (which I knew was pronounced “eshcudos”) and he was not going to let me move one inch until I paid him.
Well, this was obviously a scam and, as a red-blooded Yankee Doodle American boy, I was not going to fall for it. I managed to convey to him my skepticism and he showed me his official handbook, which made it clear even to me that the fine was, indeed, twenty “eshcudos.” He then showed me his book of receipts, one of which he was going to fill out once I had paid the fine to him.
Well, I still felt victimized and set out to try to tell him that the light had not been red when I crossed the intersection; it had been yellow. So, continuing to mispronounce Spanish, I said to him, “La luzh no eshtaba roja, eshtaba uh, uh, er.” To my utter chagrin, the word for yellow escaped me in that important second.
I didn’t know if he understood me or not, but he continued to direct his expressionless stare at me and made no effort to help me out with my linguistic problem. And don’t you help me out by telling me that the word is Amarillo. It doesn’t help me in the slightest for you to tell me that now. Where were you when I was stammering at that policeman in Lisbon?
Finally, in desperation and with that burst of inspiration that has typified good old American inventiveness, the solution occurred to me. I said to him triumphantly, “La luzh no eshtaba roja, eshtaba banana!”
He was impressed neither by my alibi nor my linguistic creativity. Instead, he made it clear that he was prepared not to move from that spot for hours if need be until I paid the fine. Ultimately, of course, I paid him the twenty “eshcudos,” got my receipt and went on my way.
But I never again made fun of Pop’s mispronouncing Yiddish in order to speak German.