Lost and Found in Translation, Balkans

I loitered outside the bakery in Tirana, the capital of Albania, looking in my wallet for Albanian lek. I find that having a few smaller denomination notes identified before I go into a shop saves fumbling for money at the till while the locals are lining up behind. Into the bakery I strode, and selected the goodies I was after. The lady identified me as a foreigner (not hard), and kindly wrote down the total on a piece of paper for me. I handed over the cash to cover it, and after receiving my change, said ‘Thankyou’, to which the lady replied ‘Nothing’. I smiled and walked out clutching my brown paper bags. ‘Nothing’ I thought. ‘Well that’s a little unusual.’ I certainly didn’t expect Albanians to speak English, but that particular choice of word was little unexpected.

A few weeks later I was in Macedonia. To be honest I can’t remember what shop I was in, but after I thanked the shopkeeper I was once again told ‘Nothing’ with a smile. ‘There it is again’ I thought.

After arriving in Pristine, Kosovo, my host showed me through my rental apartment, pointing things out and explaining how everything worked in basic English. He told me to text him if I had any problems. Later that evening I messaged him to ask something, which he promptly answered, and when I thanked him, a one work answer appeared on my phone. ‘Nothing.’

By this time I was thinking it must be a reasonably common thing that people from the Balkans say to English speakers. But it still didn’t really make sense. Why ‘nothing’?

After my stay in Belgrade, Serbia, I was at the bus stop attempting to buy a ticket to Bosnia and Herzegovena. There were a few dramas as the ticket agency didn’t take credit card, I had some cash but was finding it more difficult than usual to add up, and I was running out of time to get to an ATM and back before the bus would leave. Anway, all’s well that ends well, and after I thanked the staff member for her patience, she sent me on my way with a cheerful ‘Nothing’.

It was only after I plunked myself down in the bus, relieved to have made it, that it suddenly made sense. ‘Nothing’ must have come from ‘It’s nothing’, or something similar. Although I felt like a bit of a dickhead for not working it out earlier, having someone say ‘It’s nothing’ to you in a store isn’t very common in English speaking countries. In fact, I’ve never heard it. Even in the US, where it seems more likely that you might run into an ‘It’s nothing’, I don’t remember hearing it. (I do, however, remember being a little confused when I first visited California and heard ‘uh-huh’ as an answer to ‘thankyou’.)

I mean, occasionally someone might say ‘it’s nothing’ when you thank them for a favour or a present. But even then it’s not that common. Perhaps it came into the Balkans via another language, you know, like from ‘de rien’ in Spanish to ‘It’s nothing’ in English to ‘Nothing’ in Balkglish. Who knows?

I often find it funny how people who speak English as a second (third, fourth or fifth) language habitually use phrases that English people don’t. I am sure there are people all around the world right now saying the exact same thing about English speakers who learn their languages (unless they have something better to do with their time, which is quite likely).

How do these unusual and unused phrases get to these non-English-as-a-first-language speakers in the first place? Do locals head off to an English speaking country, and return home with an assortment of slightly odd and misconstrued phrases to share with their friends? Are people learning English from ancient teach-yourself resources, which are so dated they sound strange to us today? Are Kurtz-like figures traveling upriver and meeting isolated peoples, and leaving behind English that subsequently morphs and changes over generations of Chinese whispers?

I dunno. But even though the language barrier can make things challenging at times, hearing different languages is one of the best parts of traveling. And after all, smiles, laughs, and interpretive dance can get you a long way when trying to communicate.

Post Script

I visited Montenegro in May of 2024, and shortly after arriving I was in a store trying to choose between a couple of items. I asked the shopkeeper for advice, and after making my choice, thanked her for her assistance. She smiled and said ‘Nothing’. I smiled too. I was back in the Balkans.

If you liked this post, you may also enjoy The Simple Things, The Kindness of Strangers II

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