We were running a few minutes behind, which in Switzerland is a cardinal sin.
"I will invite you to follow me with a nice speedy leg," the guide said to us.
To me, it sounded like she wanted a swift kick in the pants, but it made perfect sense to the other people on the walking city tour of Lausanne: a Spaniard, an Italian, a Belgian, a Russian, two Germans, a French-speaking and a German-speaking Swiss. They dutifully picked up the pace. I took out my notebook and jotted down the sentence.
The tour was a planned event at a gathering of journalists from eight different countries. In Lausanne, the language on the streets is predominantly French, but the language of the gathering was English, though very few of the participants were native speakers.
The Swiss are phenomenal linguists. So, I have noticed, are Scandinavians. Not so much the citizens of other countries of Europe. They don't seem to learn each others' languages, sometimes because of deep-seated cultural conflicts.
Instead they communicate with each other in English, or rather, in what I call Euro-English, which, like Yiddish in another century, is an amalgam.
Often, in effect, they are speaking their own native languages using English words, and it makes perfect sense to them, because the syntax and cognates of their own languages may be more similar to each other than they are to English.
"You go always straight," I was told in Lugano after asking a Swiss woman for directions. In Euro-English, that means, "It's straight ahead."
But language is more round-about than straight, and how multilingual people decide which language to use when they speak to each other is a mystery.
Most of my Spanish-speaking friends at home in Arizona also speak perfect English, but when we get together as friends, we usually speak Spanish, I assume because Spanish has elements built into it to express friendship and affection.
But while my friends born in Mexico talk to me in Spanish, their kids talk to me only in English, even though they speak Spanish to each other and to their parents. So if someone of the younger generation speaks to me in Spanglish, another amalgam, it's a showing of trust and acceptance.
Language flows like water. It seeks its own level based on comfort and linguistic ability. If you speak English better than I speak Italian, we're probably going to speak English
I have a journalist friend in Lausanne who comes to Phoenix regularly. His English is not bad. My French is ok. But because one of his parents is from Uruguay, his second language is Spanish, and that is the language we gravitate towards because we both speak Spanish better than I speak French or he speaks English.
Sometimes ego gets in the way: While in Lausanne, I made a remark in Italian to an Italian journalist, and she immediately corrected my pronunciation before asking my name. I offered to help her with her even worse command of English, and she was offended.
Then, later that week, in Lugano, I spoke Italian everywhere, with no complaints. Still and all, the day I spent there with a guide of Italian-Argentine origin was mostly conducted in Spanish, because my Spanish was better than her English or my Italian.
Nuance gets lost across cultures: One evening in Montreux, an Englishman and a Scottish woman and I were reflecting on the variants of our mutual language and discussing how the closer you are to the streets and the farther you are from education the less intelligible your accent will be to foreigners. A Russian woman thought we were talking about politics and excused herself because her bosses had told her to avoid political discussion at all cost.
I wonder how we might have expressed it in Euro-English.
The native languages wired into our brains make second languages seem like Microsoft programs running on Apple computers. It's called language interference.
A lot of Euro-English sentences start with "It is possible to...," or "It is necessary to..." because that's how sentences start in French and Spanish and Italian. In standard English, we state options with "either/or" constructions. In Euro-English, as in most European languages, it's an "or/or" choice, as in, "Or you go this way, or you go that way."
So many things in Euro-English are "typical," apparently meaning "locally common," or "roman-teek," and I haven't figured out if that refers to a period or a mood.
And don't confuse a strong sense of time with a sense of tense.
"Charlie Chaplin has been living a long time in Vevey, Switzerland," I was told, though the man has been dead for decades. But it makes perfect sense to French or Italian speakers, because they use the present perfect tense in their languages to convey the past.
Once, in Italy, I heard a woman explain that cypress trees came to Italy from "actual Lebanon," because in most languages, "actual" means "present-day," and not "real." It's commonly heard in Euro-English usage.
And in Euro-English, the sentence "This metro is very particular, because it has wooden wheels," as I heard in Lausanne, means that the metro is "unique," not that it is "choosy" or "specific."
What to think of a person who is "world-known" in Lausanne? And what to make of a town whose "downtown" is significantly uphill?
Maybe that can be the title of a PBS series on Euro-English.