My love of languages


Recently one of my posts was liked by a blogger called “Operation X”. My interest was piqued; a 007 fan or something more sinister? Did you know that the word sinister is derived from the Latin word for left? To my surprise and delight, Ken Ho’s blog focuses on minority languages. One particular post on Frisian languages caught my eye and it turns out my husband knows a Frisian speaker. After commenting on his post, Ken asked me if I would collaborate on the subject.

Y’all (Southern USA dialect) know my moniker ‘Chatty Kerry’ and I really do chatter in a variety of languages but only proficiently in English. I was born in San Francisco to an Irish mother and Mexican American father. My grandmother Juanita Ortega spoke Spanish although her family had been in California for generations.

As a child we moved from the USA to Formentera, part of the Balearic Islands east of the Spanish mainland. I have no memory of this experience but my mum later taught me some basic Spanish words. Then we moved to Scotland where I lived with my Nana, Mum and extended family. Although Nana had been brought up in Liverpool, England, with a rather plummy accent, she had married my grandfather Daniel McHugh who had a farm in County Sligo, Ireland. My aunt told me that they learned Irish Gaelic at school but after the death of my grandfather they moved to Scotland to learn yet another form of English. As a child, my Nana taught me my numbers in Irish Gaelic.

We lived on a public housing estate that was full of first generation Irish immigrants many of whom were from County Donegal. Gaelic was still spoken as a first language there and immigrants brought it with them to Glasgow. I watched housewives with headscarves and pinafores chat in Irish Gaelic on street corners. My Nana told me that they talked in Gaelic so they could gossip privately but I think that it was just a comfort to speak in the language of your country. All their children spoke English as a first language and few of them retained any Irish Gaelic. When I was 12 I went to a huge Roman Catholic High School with so many languages spoken at home. This was in the early 70’s so Glasgow had an influx of immigrants after WWII. The Catholics came from Lithuania, Czechoslovakia, Poland and Italy. For the most part their parents still spoke the language of their birth country but all the children quickly segued into English like most second generation immigrants.

One of my childhood friends spoke some Scots Gaelic and I was fascinated! Scots and Irish Gaelic are similar in origin but they sound very different. Scots Gaelic was mostly spoken as a first language in the Western Islands. In an odd twist of fate after the Protestant reformation, each of the islands became predominately Protestant or Catholic. My friend’s family comes from South Uist which was Catholic, yet North Uist is Protestant. Her family members still speak Scots Gaelic fluently. Then I met my husband whose family were Protestant and from the North East of Scotland.

Shortly after I married, I met most of his family from Peterhead, the biggest fishing port in Europe. The dialect is so strong in that area that I barely understood what his uncle was saying. The language is interspersed with Scandinavian, Dutch and old Pictish words. Many of the local towns start with PIT, such as Pitmedden, which indicates it was a Pictish nameplace. We lived in two villages in the 80s and 90s. One was Auchnagatt, a derivation of an old Gaelic word Achadh nan Cat that translates to field of the cats. The other was Maud which derives from Allt Madadh translated as stream of the dog/wolf. It very often rained cats and dogs in both villages… Scots Gaelic was spoken in the area generations before but the language had evolved in a complex dialect of English. Each fishing or farming community had distinct differences in language.

Immediately after we married we moved to North Wales were locals still actively speak Welsh, another Celtic language. There was some enmity between English incomers and the local population but they accepted us because we had Scottish accents. I regularly mediated in arguments between the opposing factions. Wales has made a huge effort to increase the language usage. All public documents have to be printed in Welsh and English. Children learn both languages at school. It is astonishing that they put such effort into a language spoken by so few people but admirable. It became obvious that you couldn’t really work for the local government without having a working knowledge of Welsh.

In 2002 we moved to Egypt and I had to learn some Egyptian Arabic, distinctly different from Gulf Arabic, for example. Their second language was English or French both of whom colonized Egypt at some point in the past. I took Arabic classes but I honed my skills by talking to shop-keepers and taxi driver who delighted in correcting my accent. It was then that I realized that the best way to learn a language is to immerse yourself in it. My Arabic was good enough to argue at the souk or get the correct groceries but it would have taken many more years to learn it fluently. It was fun learning a new language with a good friend from Ukraine. She also learned English from me and her new husband from New Zealand – how strange her accent was.

In 2004 we unexpectedly moved to Houston, Texas, USA – which is officially the most ethnically diverse city in the USA with the most languages spoken. We brought three Egyptian street cats who understood commands in both English and Arabic. When they were naughty, I would say, No! If that didn’t work I had to revert to Arabic, Laa! That always worked and until they died they understood Arabic commands. To my surprise, I found that I had deep roots in Texas from my paternal grandfather’s family. Not only had my great-grandparents been married just north of Dallas but my grandfather was an Oiler in the 20’s and 30’s.

It would be a mistake to think that Texans speak the same form of English that we did in Scotland. Not only is the dialect and phraseology unique but there are nuances lost on a European. Rarely do southern women use curse words but it is increasingly common to F bomb in the UK. The sweetest of Texan phrases, “Why bless your heart!” has a sting in the tail. In Texas it really means you are stupid or ignorant. Since moving here, I have had worked for the airport system, with clients and passengers. I started working there because I still had some rudimentary Arabic but now I speak ‘Aeroporto Espanol’. Houston is a hub for Latin America and who knew so many variations of Spanish existed? Only the Peruvians speak Castilian Spanish which is similar to modern European Spanish. In Lima, I was able to argue effectively for a decent taxi fare to the annoyance of the machismo taxi driver. I can now identify different types of Latin Spanish but Uruguay defeats me. They speak the strangest mix of Spanish and Italian evolving from the early settlers.

One of our first travel trips from Houston was to Louisiana, specifically to Cajun country, where they speak an archaic blend of French and local patois. Don’t ever tell a French Canadian from Quebec that it is an archaic form of French…apparently it is one of the most quickly evolving languages! In the late 1700’s settlers came from France to Quebec in Canada and Louisiana in the USA. They remained isolated partly because of the extreme conditions of both places. Cajuns live in a Waterworld of swamps and bayous. Their ancestors survived on hunting – everything! Heron was one of the favorite dishes (gah!) but raccoon and opossums also make their way into pies. Houston has been badly affected by many recent floods and we are so grateful to volunteers named ‘The Cajun Navy’. At the height of the devastation by Hurricane Harvey, the Cajun Navy came from East Texas and Louisiana in their big trucks with boats attached. They rescued so many people from flooded homes and areas. Their skills with living in a harsh environment have made them naturally skilled in water evacuations. I watched a TV interview with a Cajun hero during the Hurricane and I still don’t know what he said!

Much more recently I discovered from a DNA test that some of my ancestors were Native Mexican – I could not have been more excited or surprised. This started a series of trips into Mexico from Baja to the Yucatan. On a trip to Merida in the Yucatan, I was staying at a boutique hotel. The owners were French but the chef was native Mexican. The menu was in French and the local language, Yucatec Maya. It may as well have been Klingon… I studied French at school for many years so I can read a menu but some words could not be translated, in particular local vegetables. The consonant X was used frequently and soft intonations. My driver kept correcting my pronunciation of Spanish despite my laughing protest that I had to speak regular Mexican Spanish at work. The word, “Yo” meaning I, is spoken as it sounds in most of Mexico but in the Yucatan they say “Cho” or “Sho”. I noticed that some of my colleagues in Houston are shy to use their limited Spanish but that is the only way to learn it properly even if it causes someone to laugh. My bad Spanish has allowed me to trek safely around Latin America. Most countries appreciate you trying to speak their language no matter how bad it is. Usually I start a sentence with an apology, “Mi Espanol es malo…” and the response is almost always, “Mi ingles es malo tambien!” (My English is bad too).

We hope to retire in Texas, our feet firmly planted in the soil, and I look forward to many new languages crossing my path. It is pretty easy in Houston – everyone is from somewhere else. My hairdresser is Thai, our handyman is from Chile, the gardener is from Mexico and our street is like a small UN base. We have neighbors from Ukraine, Argentina, Japan, India, France and even some Yankees. Well, nowhere is perfect!

A real glimpse of the Yucatan jungle

Pensive Green Heron.  I think this is my favorite ever shot

Angel, my driver in Merida, was intuitive about what I was enjoying.  I got very animated about nature ‘naturalis’ and he suggested that we go to Celestun the day after visiting Mayapan and Dzibiltchaltun archeological sites.  Celestun is famous for its large flocks of pink flamingos that live on what is now a nature reserve.  It is a small beach town situated on an isthmus in the Gulf of Mexico, right around the corner from the Caribbean.  The night before I excitedly googled the area and was concerned about the small boats that take you out to see the flamingos (fear of water in small boats).  Additionally, some of the articles mentioned that the influx of tourists was affecting where the flamingos nested.  They keep moving further away from humans.  I knew the beach would be magnificent but noted that there was a small Nature Park, Jaltun Parque Recreativo, just before the town.

This was a common black hawk. Common for the Yucutan… There was a nest close by.

Angel looked at me quizzically, as he had never gone there before, but followed his GPS and we arrived at a scrubby bit of jungle.  I looked at it uncertainly not knowing that this was going to be the cherry on the cake in Mexico.  No one spoke English but the gentleman who guided me had his wildlife book in both Spanish and English.  We excitedly chatted and I discovered that he was an Ortega – my cousin!  It takes me a while to get my eye in, when hunting for critters, but my guide was an expert.  He could identify every bird song, every tree and all the critters. It’s amazing how you don’t really need a common language when you are in tune with nature.  I perfectly understood that he was telling me about the wonders of nature – one tree, very close to another, was very toxic but the other provided the antidote.  Most of the animals were in the jungle but there were a few in small caged areas.

This is an African tree, planted by birds!

One of them was the Yucatan spiny tailed iguana.  I asked Senor Ortega if I could hold it and he explained,with concern, that they were very fast and I would have to hold it firmly behind the neck.  As an expert lizard catcher, I eagerly held out my hands.  It was a chilly winter morning in Celestun and the poor wee thing was cold.  I snuggled it into my sweater for warmth, delighting in the opportunity to be up close to an indigenous critter.

Carpenter Woodpecker Stop tapping so I can get a decent shot!!!

My guide was delighted at my derring-do and we walked into the jungle where he heard a carpenter woodpecker.  We tracked it down and he was more excited than me!  I knew my camera wasn’t up to a good shot because the woodpecker wouldn’t stop tapping but patiently waited for my guide to get just the right shot!  He was terribly impressed by my ability to track quietly and see birds.  Ah, that native DNA comes in handy at times…

Morelet’s Crocadillo

This is a shot of a Morelet Crocadillo  just gently basking in the stream.  I have seen many alligators and crocodiles but that might have been my only opportunity to see this particular crocodile that is found only in Central America.  Just call me Crocodile Kerry…

A special treat was to pop my head inside the boa’s enclosure and take a shot while they were both hissing at me.  When I got back to the car, tired and happy, Angel looked horrified at my shots of serpientes and shuddered!  Off we drove, along the road into Celestun.  It struck me afterwards that I had been cuddling all sorts of critters and it didn’t even cross my mind to wash my hands.  This might be why I got a parasite in Egypt.

More shots to follow of the Yucatan jungle

Courtship by an Angel…


I saved my most surprising tale from Merida for just before Valentine’s Day. As you know, I had a marvelous driver, Angel, who I paid to drive me all over the Yucatan. We are both naturally chatty and speaking different languages didn’t stop us. I had a Spanish/English book and he had Google Translate when we were in cell phone range. When we first met, he asked me if I wanted to travel in the front or the back. It would have been weird to have been in the back, as though he was limousine driver, so I jumped in the front.

We learned a lot about each other over two days. He showed me photos of his pretty wife and children. They had been married for 14 years and he was astonished that I had been married for 35 years (so am I…) I think he thought I was in my mid 40’s and I would have guessed he was in his late 30’s. On the first day, we chatted about my Mexican Spanish heritage and I told him about my mum and dad. He asked me if I was famous which perplexed and amused me. I think it was because I told him I was a writer and my mum was a model. As many of you now know, being a published writer doesn’t necessarily make you ‘famoso’ or wealthy.

By the second day, we had got into a good groove with our Spanglish banter. I was feeling good and I put on some mascara and lipstick. Maybe he thought it was for him? Both days I just dressed in t-shirts and leggings because the rural Yucatan areas are quite conservative. My expeditions were into potentially dusty and dirty areas, so no point in being glamorous. He was very intuitive about what I would enjoy and had asked all the right questions. Yes, I wanted to see unusual pyramids (no turistas, por favor) but I got most excited about handling an iguana and seeing fruit bats. Curiously, when I showed him my photograph of the Carpenter Woodpecker he knew immediately what it was. Perhaps he had worked in another field before driving.

I make a good traveling companion, if my health is good, and I could see that he enjoyed all the laughter. He told me that I was a really nice, funny person. There are police checkpoints all over the Yucatan and I said, “Lento, Policia!” which means ‘slowly, police!’ Angel wasn’t speeding (he was an excellent driver) but he thoroughly enjoyed my mime of what I do when I see the Texas police, braking really fast. They seem less afraid of Mexican police than we are of Texan ones…

About an hour before we returned to Merida on the second day, he told me that I was very pretty. I laughed and said, ‘Pero vieja (but old)’ “No, no” he insisted “Muy bonita”. Finally, I just accepted the compliment. Then he asked me if I liked to dance and my face lit up. Salsa is my favorite, I shared, and it is very popular in Houston. “Do you have lots of boyfriends?” “No!” I squealed, “I am married.” “Did I have lots of boyfriends before I married?” I explained that I married at age 21 but yes, I did have lots of boyfriends. Of course I did!

So, after beautifully predating courting me for 2 days he came up with the final stunning question, “¿Haces trampa?” which means do I cheat (on my husband). Another squeal of NO from me followed by delighted giggles. I have had plenty of propositions even in recent years but I was beginning to think I was getting to my ‘best before’ date. Then I explained that even though my husband was REALLY old, he was very romantic, telling me he loves me most days and that I love him.

We reached the hotel, having previously organized that he would pick me up for my early flight the third day. He ran around to open my door (please take note, Teddy) and we shook hands while Angel looked at me with big brown eyes. Just at that moment a few Europeans appeared across the road. One of the men shouted in broken English, “You should take her!” Angel didn’t understand what he was saying but I thought, “He very nearly did.”

I was a little anxious about the atmosphere on the ride to the airport the following morning, after my rejection of my suitor. He usually turned up early and I was pacing at the hotel door. Then the red car turned up and I ran out with my suitcase. A woman got out of the car – he had sent his wife!! She was really very pretty and charming. One of his little daughters was in her school uniform, for an unusual school run via the airport with a strange blond lady who spoke bad Spanish. It is not the first time that a much younger man has approached me, even when they know my age. I am complimented and fascinated. Perhaps some of the ageism has disappeared from society. Maybe a good figure and a fun personality negate the age barrier? Keep it coming, guys, because it makes me feel fantastic!

PS. Before anyone mentions hashtags, bear in mind that no boundaries were crossed. I was perfectly comfortable and he just asked me questions. As to whether he was a cheater; I am not sure. It was curious that he showed me his wife and children immediately. Perhaps I just enchanted him and he saw a once in a lifetime opportunity with a quirky white cougar who might be really good in bed….

Huehuecoyotl is my new best friend…

My gorgeous four poster bed in Merida…note the mosquito net

Doesn’t it look gorgeous?  The tiles are original from the 17th century mansion.  The French owners have recently created this boutique hotel and coordinated everything with the tiles.  The back wall is the palest dove gray as is the new futon beside the bed.  The lamps were made of local limestone and I am taking the photograph from the stairs (yes two levels) in my suite leading to the brand new bathroom.  It was exquisitely designed with local stone in the huge shower.

So far, so good, eh?  The bed was rather hard but the bedding was lovely.  The mosquito net was not for decoration and the fumigator turned up on the second day (it smells of roses, Senorita…).  I look like I have had measles.  Eventually I caught one of the little f***ers and my blood oozed out of it.  The exquisite shower had only cold water.  On one fortuitous occasion I had a tepid shower – yay!  I was offered three other rooms which barely had a trickle of still cold water and realized I had the best room.  My French fellow guests had a trickle of cold water for their whole stay. Dirty froggies…🐸.  I know that is terribly un PC but it’s one of my resolutions.

The menu was translated by French people into English and they need not have bothered.  There is a local Maya language spoken and I have no idea what the menu said.  I ate dessert and breakfast with unidentifiable fruit.  I rarely spoke English to anyone.  Everyone at the hotel spoke French including the staff.  My driver’s English was as good as my Spanish and yet we talked for hours each day.  Google Translate helped with certain words until we were out of cell phone range.

THIS WAS THE BEST VACATION EVER!!!  I don’t know why but I loved every second of it, even my Eco toilet which means no paper down the drain (there was a little lidded bucket for the poo smeared paper).  It felt like glamping or glhostelling.  The day before I left I had received bad news about four friends with health and other problems.  I was so upset that I momentarily considered not going.  The saddest news was the death of our fellow blogger Pan otherwise known as Linda, beautifully memorialized by John Ray and Osyth. If you click on John and Osyth’s names you will see their posts about Linda. My head still has an image of her dog guarding her dead body for two days.

My mental health must be stronger than I imagined and I decided that life really was too short.  I compartmentalized all my bad news, got on the plane and prayed at every church that I saw in Merida.  I got lost twice in the pitch black but kept finding churches so perhaps Huehuecoyotl had an auspicious plan.  The beauty of nature and the kind, warm people of the Yucatan soothed my soul and provided much needed balm.  I have many stories to tell but I have a busy week helping friends and doing paid work so it may be a week or so before I share more.

I climbed a pyramid!


This is a shot from Mayapan, a huge Maya city that has NO tourists! My various DNA tests did not show that I am part mountain goat…all those years hill-climbing with my school friends, Katharine and AnneMarie have left me with a core strength. There was a small group of local school teenagers who struggled to keep up with me…

Most importantly, may Linda rest in peace. She was a loyal, funny and delightful blogger friend that I will miss.