hgazette.com, Haverhill, MA

July 11, 2013

The language of our time

Tom Vartabedian
The Haverhill Gazette

---- — I recall as a youth working the counter of my dad’s luncheonette and greeting customers as they arrived.

Whether it was a simple cup of coffee or eggs over hash, I filled the orders diligently and with a smile.

Dad had one piece of advice. “The customer is always right.”

“Even when they’re wrong?” I’d question.

“You don’t argue,” he replied. “If he doesn’t come back, who loses?”

Dad had a point. We needed his service more than he needed ours. The place drew its regulars as well as its transients.

One day, a total stranger sat on the stool looking like a derelict. I gave him the once-over twice and took his order. He requested the works, easily a $3 fare. Back then, of course, a cup of coffee went for a dime and it was 5 cents for a doughnut.

Our family had a secret code. We communicated in Armenian whenever we wanted to hide something from our clientele. Armenian was our chosen language at home and we carried it into the business.

My father minced no words when it came to getting his message across. “Watch this man,” he said in Armenian. “He may be looking to fool you. Make sure you get paid.”

“Before serving him the meal? That’s a little embarrassing, don’t you think, Pa?”

“Not when he escapes without paying for his dinner. If that happens, I’ll take it out of your earnings since you waited on him.”

Just then, the unthinkable occurred. The diner slapped his hand on the counter in anger and introduced himself as an Armenian.

He understood every word and took us to task for what was said. He put $5 on the counter, wanted his change back, gave me no tip and left saying, “Don’t expect me back. You’ve ridiculed me in our language.”

I’ve been on trains and buses where people have spoken Armenian. One day at the airport, I interrupted a conversation in Armenian with some words of my own. Turns out, we had mutual acquaintances and spent the next 20 minutes conversing in the mother tongue.

It drew no attention. People these days are accustomed to hearing a foreign dialect in their everyday travels. The trouble with Armenians is that we don’t exercise it enough, even when we know it. Maybe because it’s not our first language.

I only wish I were more assertive with my own children when it came to teaching them the language. Having them each as Armenian School students in church did me no good. What did help with the eldest child was living with an Armenian-speaking grandparent.

Sonya didn’t use it. So she lost whatever she had learned early in life. It’s not an isolated case, either. I can count on one hand how many Armenian School students filtered through my class over 35 years and how many speak with any fluency. Now their children attend and a new generation unfolds. The challenges are even greater. If the parents don’t converse in Armenian, neither will they.

On the other hand, I am amazed by the truly impeccable Armenian spoken by the American-born. Many non-Armenians have embraced our language by translating books and giving dissertations on a university level.

I tend to be a stickler for tradition. If our beloved Mass ever shifted dialects and went from classical to modern, it would never be the same. You do not have to understand a language in order to appreciate it. Leave it the way it’s been for the past 1,700 years.

When the Catholic Church dispensed with Latin and went to an English-speaking format, I felt a certain loss. Sometimes change can be irrepressible.

You need not know Italian to appreciate a Puccini opera. Nor must you know Greek to dance a Tsamiko. I had five years of French in high school and college. My vocabulary today is practically nil. But hearing it spoken in Paris made it refreshing.

I’ve been to Armenia twice and was introduced to an entirely different dialect, being Western. It took the second trip before I really caught on to some nuances.

Some of the tourists on our bus trip were in limbo. They had no background in Armenian and the tour guide stuck to his native language. The sporadic translations got to be an ordeal.

I’m told there are between 2,500 and 3,000 languages spoken throughout the world, not including that spoken by teenagers. Maybe it’s me, but sometimes I have a difficult time understanding what they say.

Getting back to my dad’s charade in the diner, I did learn a very valuable lesson from all that. No one has a better command of any language than the man who knows just when to talk and when to shut up.

Writer and photographer Tom Vartabedian is retired from The Haverhill Gazette. He contributes this regular column.