I say tomato, He says tomahto

IMG_0351 My kids got a bit shafted on the mother tongue front.  Although they have dual citizenship, both my husband and I hail from English-speaking backgrounds.  He speaks raisonnable French, enough to roughly translate the menu as “something beef with something something red sauce”.  I can carry on a basic conversation en español después de dos o tres cervezas, but neither one of us has a fluent enough second tongue to pass on.  In this upside down ex-pat world we’ve met kids that waffle between 3 and 4 different languages without a glitch.  It’s beautiful and frankly, intimidating.  In an international school like the one my children attend, they are often required to take instruction in the language of the host country.  For us that means the oldest one has had a few years of Greek (great if we move back to Astoria, Queens) and now Danish (fantastic if we decide to settle in the Faroe Islands).  Not the most useful, marketable languages long-term, but there you go.  They are stuck with English.  American and The Queen’s.

I will never be a zeb ra.

Before we had children, I had to sign a contract in blood that any progeny would refer to the world’s most popular game as ‘football’ and NOT ‘soccer’.  I wanted kids, so they call it football.  I have relented to a degree.  Parking lot is car park, trunk is boot.  I can tolerate jumper, trainers, rubbish bin, and pavement.  But there are certain words that I cannot exchange without wincing.  Pants will never mean underpants to me, nor do they to my kids.  Trousers summon fancy work type pants and a truck will never be a lorry.  Oregano, tomato, garage and schedule are too ingrained to change.  Aluminum and aluminium are two different words and spelled differently, thank you.   And although my surname is spelled in the English manner with a ‘u’, color is always color and gray is always gray.  Oh, and I will fight to my last breath in maintaining that it is a zee-bra, not a zeb-ra.  It is certainly not w, x, y and zed.  Queen’s English or not, that doesn’t even rhyme.

IMG_0349My very British in-laws claim not to understand what the boys are saying at times because they sound too broadly American.  And granted, after a summer spent with my family on the outskirts of Boston, they come back claiming that everything is “AWEome” and calling people wicked “pah-ty poop-ahs”.  When my kids visit the States, our American friends exclaim over how quaintly English they sound.  And granted, after spending any time in the UK, they often sound like Dick Van Dyke trying to do cockney in Mary Poppins.  I half expect them to click their heels and shout “chim chim cheroo”.   They’re a mixed up bunch.  They use a lot of British verbiage and turns of phrase, but with an American twang.  And they use thoroughly American slang with a weird East London tang.  Throw in a  bit of Greek Cypriot phraseology (παναγια μου!  εντάξει?), a little Danish (tusind tak!) and their little accents are all over the map.  My oldest son has gorgeous Danish pronunciation, no easy feat, which he will never use again once our time in Denmark is up.  The little one used to call out  “Oxi!” in his dreams, (“no!”), but he doesn’t remember it now.

And while the idiosyncracies of speech are fun to note and good fodder for dinner table jokes, more is at stake than how you pronounce tomato.  Language and culture and identity are all tied up together.  My children have parents that come from two different countries, and right now, are growing up in a culture that neither parent hails from, going to school with a group of children, that though homogenous in their educated, middle class-dom, call all four corners of the world ‘home’.  They are oddly state-less.  When asked where they ‘come from’, they don’t hesitate to say New York.  But asked which country they identify with, and they get confused.   IMG_0347The big one was asked to learn his national anthem and came home flummoxed.  The little one had to pick a flag to put his picture on for culture’s day at school and he faltered (though eventually he chose the Union Jack).   At a scout meeting, when asked to start the meeting with The Pledge of Allegiance, having never been to school in the U.S., my oldest son had no clue what the words were.  When asked to ‘choose sides’, more often than not they will choose Dad’s side.  Perhaps it is because we live outside the United States or maybe it is because I have sons and they are starting to identify more with their father.   But for whatever reason, as they grow older, I am becoming increasingly interested in which culture they will identify with, on which shores they will feel more at home.

Eether?  Eyether? Neether? Nyther?

With kids, it isn’t so easy to call the whole thing off.

Toe-may-to? Toe-mah-toe? Screw it.

post script:   When doing a little background for this piece I learned that the differences in “aluminum” and “aluminium”, a source of never-ending amusement in our extended families, can be traced back some time.  Depending on your sources, the Danish physicist/chemist Hans Christian Ørstead is credited with producing an impure version of the metal two years before Friedrich Wöhler, who usually gets all the glory.  In Copenhagen, the road we live off of is named for HC Ørstead.  A completely random, but somewhat darling coincidence.  You can learn more about the industrious Mr. Ørstead  here, if you are so inclined.

llustration from Hulton Archive/Getty Images
llustration from Hulton Archive/Getty Images

13 thoughts on “I say tomato, He says tomahto

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  1. So well observed! I’ve watched my niece and nephew grow up bouncing between Gloucestah and Glascow (ok, technically Edinburgh) and marvel that they’re so at ease with their identities. You’re raising the next generation of global citizens. AND being able to order souvla in Astoria – priceless!


  2. Such a great post! As someone British who travels around a bit and has many American friends I find myself having to learn American vocabulary just to make myself understood. I, like you, but on the other side of things, will never come around to pants being trousers. I think it was one of my strangest conversations I had when a good friend of mine told me he was going to put some pants on before going out as he was wearing shorts, I assumed he was going commando! Thanks for reminding me of all the differences 🙂


    1. Lol, I’m sure I’ve had the very same pants/trousers conversation in reverse. It’s funny how different a language can be, even when it’s the ‘same’ language. Thank so much for reading and commenting. Keep traveling!


  3. This is fabulous! My daughter also confuses her languages too. Even though we’re British, she’s spent so much time in international schools her sentence structure and phraseology is peculiar, to say the least.
    And, even as a Brit, I totally agree with you on the ‘zed’ vs ‘zee’ – ‘zed’ does not rhyme!


  4. When my oldest daughter was very little we lived in Cusco, Peru, predominantly a Spanish speaking place but shared a house with a British family that had lived in Australia and Peru for many years. They spoke in a mixed Aussie UK accent and when they spoke in Spanish, they spoke like they were Quechuas from the mountains with a British lisp. I spoke American English that I had learned when younger. She eventually said her first words in English and did start to become confused with the pronunciations of things like tomato and adidas, I still cannot say aaadidas. its adeeedas! When she was four we moved back to Lima where no one spoke English to her anymore and so she forgot it. Now in Secondary School she´s had to pick it up again and her accent is anything but placeable! She switches from American words to British words at her leisure. For school work (American program Homeschool) she writes with American words but when she meets someone new she uses British words. Quite amusing I have to say.


    1. These amalgamated accents are ridiculous, amusing, and confusing to say the least. There is no reason to say ah-dee-dahs, because as we both know, the correct pronunciation is, indeed, a-dee-dus ;-). It will be interesting to see if these kids are truly global citizens when they come of age. Thank you so much for reading and taking the time to comment!


  5. Really interesting! We are American but raising our kids all over Europe – one has an American accent (because she learned english from us while we lived in Italy til she was 4) and the other has more of a British accent (because he went to nursery in London)! They are-but-aren’t American, English, French (they go to french schools), Italian… luckily they have plenty of friends who are similarly stateless, although I do wonder if one day they will find themselves pining for a home identity when in some sense they never will have had one.


    1. I know there have always been kids raised over the globe (military brats, diplomatic families), but it really does seem like it’s becoming more and more common as the world gets smaller and smaller through ease of travel and global marketing etc. Perhaps we are raising the first true global citizens. But then there’s an equal chance we’re just screwing them up royally ;-). You are right though, it will be very interesting to see how it all turns out. Thanks so much for taking the time to read and comment, I really appreciate it.


  6. This is AWEome! 🙂 My husband and I do not have kids yet, but when we do they’re going to grow in at least a bilingual culture. Keep us posted on how it’s going. Really interesting to know!


    1. Thank you! It’s a funny thing to watch. For those of us that spent our entire childhoods in one country, with parents of the same citizenship, it’s a strange phenomenon to behold. Only time will tell how they turn out (if they don’t kill each other first ;-).) Thanks so much for reading and commenting!


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