You Know What I Mean

I’ve recently started to turn on a movie as background noise to my stretches and exercises: a minor distraction from a less-than-favourite activity. So it was this week that I was listening to the closing bits of The Hunt for Red October, which I’ve seen too many times to count. Well, you know what I mean: Not *too many* to count; just more times than I have counted.

Anyway, that’s how I hear Captain Vasili Borodin’s last words without being distracted by having to watch the attractive Sam Neill die on screen. Well, not *actually* die, but you know what I mean: appear to die.

I would like to have seen Montana.

I sit up. What did he say? I play it over in my mind.

I would like to have seen Montana.

Now I’m sitting up and frowning (which combo counts as cardio, I think). That sentence sounds wrong. OK, then, smarty-pants, what were you thinking?

I would have liked to see Montana.

That’s what leaps to my lips. Well, no, I’ve seen Montana and those words would not leap to my lips on my deathbed even if I had not, but you know what I mean. If I had written this screenplay, that’s how I would have said it. Of course, maybe the screenwriter and I speak different forms of North American English: It would not be the first time.

Let’s trace it through, shall we? Vasili is not indicating something that he lacks but would like right now, if only he had it: a medium-rare steak, maybe, or not to be dying. He is lamenting that his plans to see Montana will not be realized. He is lamenting not seeing something that he would have liked to see, if only things had gone differently.

I would have liked to see Montana before I died,
but I see now that this will not be.

That’s the long form, to which we need not hold a dying man. Well, *he’s* not dying but you know what I mean: His character is.

And so we come (finally) to my intuition about the way a native speaker in extremis would express this sentiment.

I would have liked to see Montana.

Of course, Vasili is not a native English speaker. He’s a Russian, so we can forgive him some second-language oddities with English verb tenses.

Tenses? Schmenses!

Maybe the screenwriter did it on purpose to make him sound foreign, which makes sense if we resolutely refuse to think too deeply about this whole English-from-the-mouths-of-foreigners-in-the-movies thing. After all, we’re pretending that they’re speaking Russian but we’re hearing English so we don’t have to bother with subtitles. And if it’s Russians talking among themselves, then where, how, and why does a Russian accent come in?

But the lasting lesson, I think, is to give us confidence in our own tentative forays into other languages. We can stray a long way from what a native speaker might say and still be understood.

I would like to have seen Montana.

It’s a wonder, for sure, but we do actually know what he means.


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12 Responses to You Know What I Mean

  1. Tom Watson says:

    Ending a movie with a lament is an interesting cinematic device. Interesting that it sticks.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Tom – Well, it wasn’t quite the end. They did some chase-down-the-bad-guy and some inspiring stuff after that. But it did stick.

  2. Jim Taylor says:

    I must confess — I’m a lapsed purist. Once upon a time, I corrected pe0ple’s speech. My wife’s, my children’, my friends’… Most of them forgave me, which says a lot more about their character than mine. I’ve discovered that it ain’t no use, nohow. The errors and inconsistencies that people utter lives on after them; their good grammar is interred with the bones. If the message/intent gets across from speaker to hearer, that’s all that matters.

    Jim T

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Jim T – I’ve stopped correcting speech – except in my head, and not always there. I do hear/notice what I consider to be non-standard usage in a screenplay, maybe because I know it’s gone past several places where someone might have changed it, from the original author, the collaborators, the directors, and the actors. But you’re right – the communication is what counts, and there was no confusion on that point, here.

      • barbara carlson says:

        Me, too, but reluctantly. Like so much else, NOBODY gonna change. BUT I do have a French friend who speaks English almost impeccably… but she had a laughing fit last week when her brother told her it’s not NOBLE Prize, but NOBEL Prize. Accent on last syllable. She was SO embarrassed for her past self saying it wrong-LY!!!! over the last 20 years. But still, I don’t correct her – which she’s asked me to — on a few other “wrong” English pronunciations (or translation to English) ’cause on her it’s cute.

        • Isabel Gibson says:

          Barbara – Emphasis varies a lot, English to French. Back in the early 14th century I had a French prof tell me that native speakers of French often didn’t understand when an English speaker said oo-nee-VARE-see-tay (transferring the emphasis from where we put it in university) because they didn’t emphasize any of the syllables. It’s hard to believe that emphasis matters so much, but it does.

          • barbara carlson says:

            It’s the new English emPHAsis that is creeping me out — in OV va tive for IN o va tive! where the H did that come from? There are several more atrocities lately, but I have blocked them.

          • Isabel Gibson says:

            Barbara – I haven’t heard that one: I’ll go on alert. We watch TV shows and movies from the UK and Australia and hear lots of different pronunciations: pay-tint for pa-tent was one last night. My favourite is Still Game, a show written by and starring two Glaswegian comics, who talk about the PO-lis (for police) and who say “How no?” for “Why not?”

  3. barbara carlson says:

    Spoiler Alert — not so much!

  4. John Whitman says:

    Isabel – as I’ve mentioned before, my problem is that I often spell words the way I pronounce them, and when you have an Annapolis Valley drawl, it causes lots of work for SpellChek.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      John – You’re not alone. Spelling is a big problem in English, as shown by the Scripps Spelling Bee. They don’t have one in Spanish. And spelling seems to be independent of other language skills. My mother was a good writer but a poor speller. I know next-gen family who learned to read using the “whole language/word” method – they read super fast but spell badly.

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