First Impressions

My wife is a rather amazing person.  She’s something of an auto-didact hobbyist.  Or, maybe she’s a hobbyist auto-didact.  However it works, she tends to teach herself amazing things, and seemingly on a whim.  As a young child, she asked her parents for a Quran.  It alarmed her parents a little, her dad, and a lot, her mom.  To their credit, though, her Episcopalian parents allowed it.  And while not attending church very much as a child, she knows the Bible chapter and verse.  She read it.  She is an agnostic, much like I am.  We have very religious relatives on both sides, and mix with them easily.  Among our favorite relatives are the most religious.  All of that is to say, religion is not a barrier.  While not religious, she is the most ethical, and the most empathetic person I have ever known.  She really suffers with other people’s suffering, and with animal suffering.  I always say that empathy is her super power.  

She spent a couple of years teaching herself Mandarin Chinese.  She has no connection to China, and no plans to visit.  She did it out of mere curiosity.  This may not seem like a big deal.  What’s another language, right?  Wrong.  It is profoundly difficult.  She has a room in our house that is a bit of a genius workshop for herself.  She has taken voice classes from Berkeley  College of Music online.  (She has been a member of the Columbus Symphony Chorus for the past 20 years). She played saxophone in band as a child.  She also played clarinet.  She played the piano…because it was there.  Now, she is learning the cello.  

The cello is up in her genius workshop, along with some antiques, and some rolled up Oriental rugs that we are not using.  In the last couple of years, I have listened to her cello playing from a distance.  It seems to improve in sudden steps.  It was her first stringed instrument, so if you were not watching, you could not tell if she was playing a drum, a kazoo, or livestock.  It wasn’t long before it sounded like a cello.  Now, I hear easily recognizable classical music coming out of there.  

She takes lessons from a woman across town now.  And now, during this social distancing, she is using Face Time to continue to support the woman, because this pandemic thing is a threat to the teacher’s business, as well as everything else.  Having never been to one of her classes with the cello teacher, I had never heard the woman’s voice, until the other day.  Normally, her cello practice just blends in with the background, even when she was new.  It was never disturbing.  I’m always in another room, and I don’t hear it unless I try.  But, on the occasion of her first virtual lesson, I heard an English sounding voice on the other end.  That was mildly interesting, and sometime later I said, “so, your cello teacher is from England?”  She said, no.  She’s from here.  She’s not only from Ohio, but I think she’s from central Ohio.  

Now, dialects fascinate me.  Always have.  I love differences in speech, whether they are nuanced, or extreme.  I love different idioms.  I love pronunciations.  This is true for most dialects of English, and for most languages.  Above all else, I love Indian dialects.  I am most pleased and most entertained by the sound of it.  Once, on Open Salon, I read a discussion among several writers who spoke German as a second language.  They differed on what was “High German”, and what was “Low German”, and they gave various examples.  I know nothing of German, but I found the exchanges fascinating.  I absolutely loathed one of the characters involved, but the subject matter was gripping.  

So, I wanted to know the cello teacher’s story.  What was this British person doing teaching cello here in Central Ohio?  When my wife explained that she was an Ohioan, she also included her observation.  The teacher has the habit of speaking in a very plain manner.  She rounds off no consonants, and expresses the ing sound completely.  I only heard a split second of the teacher’s voice, but it sounded as British as Henry Higgins from “My Fair Lady.”  It was brief, and I was otherwise occupied, so I wasn’t listening, but it formed a very strong impression that she was British.  I was puzzled by how far off I could be from the fact.  I listen to voices and dialects because I enjoy it.  I always have.  

What I came away with was that not only can first impression be wrong.  We all know that.  What was striking for me is that a first impression can cut very deeply.  It can be quite strong, and with little, next to no data.  I’m stunned at my certainty with such a tiny sample.  It’s not like I was trying to tell the difference between an alligator and a crocodile at a glance.  I was sampling my mother tongue spoken by a person from the city where I have lived for the past couple of decades, and only a couple hundred miles from my birthplace.  In my mind, I can still hear the British sounding English.  Normally, I would need a second sample to verify what I had been told.  Luckily, I have the correction from my wife.  I have no doubt that she knows.  

Did I mention that she’s brilliant?

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