Archive for language

Notes on the Strange

Posted in First Encounters with tags on September 24, 2009 by lexis2praxis

One of the classic tropes of anthropology is that we make the strange familiar, and the familiar strange.

Strange to me is the fact that the ice-cream truck (at least it sounds like an ice-cream truck) drives around this neighborhood after dark.  It’s 7:30 right now, and it has been wandering around the streets for a while, with its typical off-kilter somber tune interspersed with a valley girl style female voice saying “Hello!” every now and then in a very annoying fashion.

Something that is strange (for me) and easier to make familiar: the fact that yesterday, my roommate left his lights on and in the space of ten minutes, two people came to our door to tell us about it.  One of them said, “You might want to put a sign on it that says ‘I know’.”

Another thing about living here is the way terms of endearment are thrown around.  Everyone calls everyone else baby, and dear, and dahlin’, and so forth, fairly irrespective of gender, although age seems to play a role; older people are more likely to call everyone baby or whatever.  So I was walking down the street yesterday evening and I said hello to an older gentleman.  He replied, “Hey baby, how you doin?”  My initial, instinctual reaction was the kind I’m used to having when someone says “Hey baby.”  A moment of reflection, and I knew it wasn’t a cat-call, but a greeting.  So I responded, as people do here, “Alright.”  And then I got to thinking about how one knows the difference between a cat-call and a greeting.  Tone, inflection, context, body language… all of these are important indicators of which type of phrase it is.  But that’s something I’m being educated about here.  I’ve never lived anywhere where someone could say “Hey baby” in greeting.  So I’m hardwired to respond to it as a cat-call if it comes from a man.  I’m glad New Orleans has given me the opportunity to de/reconstruct this one.