Ha Ha and Wamahtchekaowe

Given that my Spanish can be a bit limited and even sometimes quite embarrassing, I was surprised on my arrival in New York to discover that Spanish (well, Broken Spanish) has become my default language. I would automatically say “gracias” instead of “thanks,” “hola” instead of “hi,” “perdone” instead of “excuse me,” “si” and “no” instead of “yes” and… well, you get the point.


My-Mother-The-Dowager-Duchess even found herself translating for me in restaurants when I didn’t understand the New York accents. “Can I get you more water?” sounded to me like “Kannagetchamowadah?” Although I’ve only lived in Spain a little over a year, I haven’t lived in New York for a very long time. Some years back, that question might have made perfect sense. The Dowager Duchess, fortunately, is usually easy to understand. The Kid Brother, on the other hand, speaks pure Brooklynese/New Yorkese/Queensese… whadevuh. I usually don’t have trouble understanding what he says because I’ve spent so many years imitating him. His accent and comments can be very entertaining. I just don’t understand why my understanding doesn’t carry over to the New York population in general. At Iberia check-in at Kennedy Airport, the woman at the counter asked me about the re-entry document folded within my passport. She had no need for it and didn’t understand why I gave it to her. She asked me the question in New York City English. I apologized (unwittingly, in Spanish) for not understanding the question, so she repeated it in Spanish, which I understood perfectly. She then looked at my birthplace on my passport. I’m surprised I wasn’t pulled aside for special screening. We then had a great conversation (in English) about my decision to live in Spain and about the magical city of Sevilla. But now I’m back in Sevilla and I say “breathe” (“respirar”) instead of “wait” (esperar). The basic truth is I have never in my life felt like I fully belonged anywhere. But that’s another story.

I may have mentioned before that the Spanish version of the English “ha ha” is pronounced the same but spelled “ja ja” (the “J’s” are pronounced like “H’s”). I think it’s kind of funny. Perhaps not ja ja funny, but funny.

While in New York with The Dowager Duchess, I had the misfortune to watch a cooking show on TV. Any time the kid brother arrives he turns on the TV and watches cooking shows. The Dowager Duchess grudgingly (so she says) watches with him. I don’t think it’s so grudgingly because she usually insists on telling me what they cooked — in some detail. Me! Well, one morning, although the Kid Brother wasn’t even there, The Dowager Duchess had the TV tuned to a cooking show. Ja! The host was Jamie Deen, one of two TV cooking sons of the TV cooking host Paula Deen. They’re from Georgia.


The traditional Georgian (Southern) accent is one I have always had some difficulty understanding. It all began with a university spring-break road-trip from New York to Daytona Beach, Florida. We were passing through rural Georgia in the middle of the night when our car broke down. It was creepy sitting on a pitch-dark rural road surrounded by huge trees draped heavily in Spanish moss. A state trooper arrived in uniform with a raw gash on his neck. There was fresh blood and it looked quite large for a shaving “nick.” He asked if we wanted him to call a wrecker. “Wahmahtacohlarecka?” is what it sounded like. When we four New Yorkers finally understood what the obvious serial killer was asking, we went into panic. In New York, we called “wreckers” “tow trucks.” We thought he was planning on taking the car somewhere and crushing it, probably with us in it. We didn’t understand why he was giving us a choice. We finally did understand (when a tow truck arrived and he said “theyah’s tha recka”). They towed us to a darkened gas station about 10 miles closer to the middle of nowhere. We slept in the car (with the doors locked) having no idea what was going to happen to us. In the morning, it was carefully explained (so we Northern idiots could understand) that all we needed was a new fan belt. After the repair was done, the creepy mechanic — filthy, gigantic, hairless, ash-colored, and dead around the eyes asked: “Wamahtchekaowe?” By the time he had repeated the question the fourth time, his fleshy ashen face was a purple gray and his eyes, although still dead, were bulging. “Oh!” we all repeated excitedly, “Want me to check the oil! Want me to check the oil!” “Yayah,” he harumphed. “No thanks,” we said. The car broke down in Georgia on the way home, too. I can’t believe we survived that trip. Not to disparage Georgia, I’ve been told the city of Savannah is especially charming.


photo from a TV website

But, back to Jamie Deen and his cooking show. I have no idea what he was cooking. I just remember that there was a kid’s birthday party going on in the backyard and they had a piñata. While the chef stood over the barbecue grill, he controlled the string to constantly readjust the height of the piñata so his son could practice on it. The goal was to let the kid have some fun without destroying the piñata before the guests arrived. The chef’s wife warned him that the boy was getting too close. The chef smiled and then, I thought, laughed, “Ha ha.” He then raised the piñata a bit and was told to raise it more. “Ha ha,” he very clearly repeated. His wife gave him some instructions.

Then it hit me. He was not saying “ha ha.” He was asking, “How high?”

Ja ja! (I wonder how you say “LOL” in Spanish. In “Georgian,” I think there are two extra syllables.)

Author: Moving with Mitchell

From Brooklyn, New York; to North Massapequa; back to Brooklyn; Brockport, New York; back to Brooklyn... To Boston, Massachusetts, where I met Jerry... To Marina del Rey, California; Washington, DC; New Haven and Guilford, Connecticut; San Diego, San Francisco, Palm Springs, and Santa Barbara, California; Las Vegas, Nevada; Irvine, California; Sevilla, Spain. And Fuengirola, Málaga..

24 thoughts on “Ha Ha and Wamahtchekaowe”

  1. Hello Mitch:
    Whatever the complexities of the linguistic gymnastics you outline here, we suggest you try Hungarian. We regard it as a possible cure for Alzheimers to attempt to learn it……just pronouncing it is a nightmare!!

    1. Jane and Lance:
      I don't think I know anything in Hungarian (oh wait, "gulash"). I just briefly looked for a translation of jet lag and couldn't find one. So I tried "hangover": másnaposság! I've seen enough and will leave it to you.

      San Geraldo speaks Russian and he tries to get us to wrap our lips around some of THOSE words!

  2. I find the southern accent much harder to understand than what we Minnesotans call the New York accent. That's probably because New Yorkers don't add extra syllables–like pronouncing "yes" as "yay-ass". I'm impressed that you have adapted to Spanish so thoroughly that you speak it spontaneously. I know what you mean about never feeling totally at home anywhere. My dad was in construction and we moved often. I was the new kid (read outsider) in school many times. Being shy and fat didn't help either. I've lived here for 22 years, the longest I've ever lived anywhere.

    1. Ms.Sparrow:

      I must admit, people from Minnesota are not difficult to understand (well, except for pop and crick and ruff and hot dish).

      Wow! Twenty-two years in one place. I have never and probably will never reach that. My longest so far has been 7-1/2 years, and that was in my childhood. My family didn't move often. I wasn't shy. I wasn't fat. But, I was "different" and… like I said… that's for another day.

      I'm glad you lost enough of your shyness to share your life on your blog. It's a joy to know you now and would have been a joy to know you before!

  3. I can't understand the Deen boys either. My favorite comment about language came from Winston Churchill who said, "The United States and Great Britain are two great countries separated by the same language." I imagine many countries are divided by the Spanish language.

  4. Oh Mitch…this is HIGH-larious! Accents are so much fun….I've been told I have one but eyeduntbeleeveeet!(I don't believe it)….this has put a huge smile on face…merci buckets!

    1. Ron:
      I do believe I've read somewhere that you might have just a hint of an accent.

      By the way, if you ever want to go sailing, I'd love to join you. You sit in the headuvher, I'll sit in the arseuver.

      (Now that I'm almost through Rosetta Stone Spanish, I've decided to work on Rosetta Stone Nova Scotian.)

  5. Ja ja! Mitch, you belong on the stage!! And there just happens to be one leaving in……
    You really have immersed yourself in Sevilla culture. I would be lost in areas where the accent is very 'thick'. I remember when we were in Newfoundland a few years ago. Well, me son (as they would say) I had NO idea what they were saying and Ron wasn't that helpful either!!

    1. Jim:
      I think what I just told Ron may actually be Newfoundlandian (Newfoundlanderese? Newfoundlandese?) as opposed to Nova Scotian. So if you ever need any help… you clearly know where NOT to go.

  6. Yar. One has tubby so keffle when one's ight and abight. Sweasy tubby Miss Under-Stud, 'specially so when one's nottin a tine, suchas Lundin orwell, Lundin (can't futhe life of me think of another tine!).

    1. Peter:
      Do you think so? I wonder if they simply text "LOL"!

      As a few of our neighborhood waiters say, "Vedy Good. Vedy nice." (which apparently means, hello, good-bye, thank-you, happy holidays, and whatever else you need to say in English).

    2. Of course I'm not sure, it's just a translation of Laughing Out Loud.

      In the Dutch language many words have a foreign origin, and lately we add a lot of English words to them.

    1. Michelle:
      Don't worry about your Russian being rusty (apparently, potato-eating never gets rusty). San Geraldo's Russian was rusty until we moved to Spain. Then, every time he tried to think in "Spanish," his Russian would reemerge.

      So, move to Spain.

  7. I was born in Manhattan but grew up in Queens. Of course this was decades ago and things may have changed, but I never really felt Queensites (Queensians? Queensers?) had a particularly identifiable accent. Now, Brooklynites, that was a different matter entirely!

    1. Will:
      I went from Long Island to Brooklyn, also decades ago. According to some things I've read recently, many researchers believe there really is no actual difference in accents among Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, and Bronx. But, I know a lot of people who disagree. My parents' families both grew up in Brooklyn and not far from each other. They had VERY different accents. Some would be described as "New York City" accents and others as "Brooklyn." I had friends in Queens who sounded more "Brooklyn" than my friends in Brooklyn. Then again, I know someone from South Africa who was told she had a Bronx accent!

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