A writer’s confession

HIG 2 BLOG

NOBODY IS PERFECT, not even yours truly.

I was a pupil at London’s Highgate School when I was studying to take state examination, then known as ‘O Levels, taken by 16 year olds. I was studying for 9 subjects, but decided to drop one of them, German. Its grammar was beginning to defeat me and to jeopardize my chances of success in the other 8 subjects.

German was not the only language that was causing me trouble as I approached the O Level exams. Unknown to me and possibly unnoticed by our English teacher, Mr B, my command of written English was insufficient for me to pass the English Language O Level exam. It was the only O Level that I failed. I passed the other subjects, but without displaying much academic excellence.

My failure to achieve the pass marks in English Language cannot be blamed on anyone except me, but there were factors that predisposed me to downfall.

During the examination, I attempted an essay that asked the candidate to discuss whether or not it was fair that pop musicians often earned more than nurses. Being by nature somewhat contrarian, I decided to write an essay in defence of the high remuneration of pop musicians. This idea, to which I no longer subscribe, expressed with poor grammar and spelling, cannot have made the person marking my paper feel sympathetic to me.

The other predisposing factor was our teacher Mr B. He was far more interested in using class time analyzing the poetry of Ted Hughes and Philip Larkin than ensuring that all of his charges were proficient in basic skills such as grammar and essay writing.

Failing English Language did not prevent or delay my commencing the subjects in which I was to prepare for the A Level examinations that were required for admission to university.

One of my three A Level subjects was biology. The senior biology teacher was Mr S, affectionately known by his first name George. He set us three essays per week. On Saturday mornings, we had a double-length period (one and a half hours) with him. During this, he went through our essays, pointing out their good points and bad ones. The essays of one student, ‘P’ were particularly dreadful. His spelling was awful as was his punctuation: there was none except a full stop at the end of each foolscap page. And, to my annoyance and surprise, P passed English Language O Level at the same time as I failed.

Six months after failing my English Language O Level, I took the exam again. I passed with a good grade. I believe that I had learnt a great deal about essay writing from George’s Saturday essay critiquing sessions. I shall always be grateful to him.

On Saturday mornings, parents thinking of sending their sons to Highgate were shown around the school. The biology laboratory, where the essay classes were held, was on the tour. George, who was a genial old fellow, allowed us to relax during the Saturday morning classes. However, he always told us that if we heard the door to the laboratory being opened, we were all to act as uf we were concentrating on something serious while the parents peered in.

On Friday afternoons, we had a three hour practical class during which, for example, we dissected the parts of dogfish not required by fishmongers. Friday lunchtimes found George drinking in one of Highgate Village’s numerous quant pubs.

George used to arrive at the Friday afternoon practical classes having drunk far too much. For the first hour of the class, he was a menace, arguing with anyone unwise enough to approach him. After about an hour, he used to sit down and fall asleep. The last two hours of the class were supervised superbly by George’s deputy, Mr Coombs.

George was a wonderful teacher. He inspired his pupils’ enthusiasm for biology. Like my PhD supervisor, Robert Harkness, his range of interest extended from microscopic intracellular detail to the whole organism. Once, when walking to the Dining Hall with George, he stooped down and picked up a fallen tree leaf. He asked us what kind of tree had produced it. None of us knew. He said:

“That’s the trouble with you youngsters. You know all about DNA, but you cannot recognise a leaf from a plane tree.”

George was, as far as we knew, probably celibate. When we reached the part of the biology syllabus that dealt with human reproduction, he told us:

“You know all about this. You can read up the details in the book.”

I have wandered from my starting topic somewhat. Maybe, you were beginning to believe that I was trying to distract you from my sad performance in English and from thinking that, given my record, I have great ‘chutzpah’ writing and publishing books.

Picture shows coat of arms of Highgate School, founded in 1565

English abroad: Globes, robots and bogies

Stop light_240

 

I must have been about eleven years old when the headmaster of my preparatory school, the Hall School in Hampstead, interviewed all of us individually in preparation for our applications to secondary school. When I had answered several questions using the word ja (pronounced ‘yah’), the headmaster said that it was wrong to say ja when I should be saying ‘yes’. 

The reason that I said, and often still say, ja instead of yes is that my parents were born and brought up in South Africa where ja is often used to express the affirmative.

In my childhood, I heard my parents using words that form part of South African English. At table, I always wiped my hands and mouth with a serviette, rather than a ‘napkin’. And, when we relaxed we usually sat in the lounge, rather than in the ‘sitting room’ or ‘drawing room’.

If I wanted to see a film, my father would enquire at which bioscope it was being shown. And, if a light bulb needed changing, he would insert a new globe

When we were in the car we used to stop at a robot, if the traffic light was showing a red light and then proceeed when it changed through amber to green.

By now, you can see that I was raised in England, but acquiring vocabulary that was only used many thousands of miles away below the Equator in South Africa. So, it was not surprising that I answered the headmaster with ja instead of ‘yes’. But, he probably had no idea about my parents’ background.

Many years after leaving home, I began visiting India and encountered another local English vocabulary. For example, when the car needs more fuel, you fill up at the petrol bunk. And, if you have baggage, you put it in the car’s (or bus’s) dickie, rather than the ‘boot’. And en-route you drive round a circle, rather than the ’roundabout’. When you board a train, you do not enter a carriage. Instead you board a bogie. If you want your coffee without sugar, do not say ‘without sugar’ but do ask for sugar less.  And, so it goes on…

 

English might well be one of the world’s most used languages, but it abounds with regional variations. American English is a prime example of this. As Oscar Wilde wrote:

“… we have really everything in common with America nowadays, except, of course, language

Pigeon English

Creatures real and imaginary_500

 

Pidgin English is a simplified, often colourful, form of the English language used by some people for whom English is not their mother tongue. The various forms of  Pidgin English, and there are many, are typically mixed with the speaker’s native language. Well, for many years, I did not know that. I must admit that this was a symptom of my ignorance. Also, when people referred to ‘Pidgin’ English, I used to think that they were talking about ‘pigeon’ English, which in my ignorance I believed to be English as spoken by someone who knows as little of English as, for example, pigeons. True, people who speak Pidgin probably know less English than fully fluent English speakers, but they know a great deal more about English than pigeons.

I used to visit Italy often during my youth and early adult years. During this period, I picked up a smattering of Italian. I knew enough to have simple conversations with Italians. Although my Italian was mostly ungrammatical, people could make some sense of what I was trying to communicate.

Once, I was travelling through Italy on a train, having a chat with an Italian passenger. He praised my Italian, probably out of politeness and because I was making an effort to speak in his language. Modestly, I told him that I was speaking ‘pigeon’ Italian, when what I really meant, without knowing it, that I wanted to say I was speaking ‘pidgin’ Italian.

I said:

Parlo italiano come un piccione” (Meaning: ‘I speak Italian like a pigeon’).

The person I was talking to looked at me as if I was mad. And, he was right to do so, because of my ignorance of the difference between ‘pidgin’ and ‘pigeon’.

Mistress

A man might have one ‘mistress’ or even several. However, there is no male version of this word in English. The word ‘mistress’ sometimes carries negative connotations, but it also suggests a more formal or longterm relationship than a casual one. In any case, having a mistress implies a relationship with a woman, who is not married to the man.

So given that there is no male version of a mistress , how does a woman refer to a man with whom she is having a relationship out of wedlock?

The word ‘partner’ is sometimes used. So, is ‘boyfriend’, ‘lover’, ‘guy’, ‘common law husband’, or even ‘paramour’. None of these words carry exactly the same interpretations as ‘mistress’.

To me, boyfriend suggests young love. When I was practising as a dentist, some quite elderly women used to mention their ‘boyfriends’, who were often at least as old as they were. To my ears, ‘boyfriend’ sounded wrong in these cases. ‘Partner’ seemed a better choice of word.

Years ago, a friend of my father, the late Cyril Sofer, used to refer to girls’ close male friends as their ‘chaps’. Although I like this term, it is still not a male version of the word ‘mistress’ with all of its implications.

Male and female

I saw a post in French on Facebook. It read: Bonne nuit à toutes et à tous…

The literal translation of this is: good night to all and all.

In English, one would write: good night all, because all includes all people both male and female.

Clearly, in the land of liberté, égalité, fraternité, all are not equal!

Spelling curios

All over India you can see variations in the spelling of English words. Here are some examples I saw today in Bangalore.

Here the word ‘naughty’ has been spelled semi-phonetically.

Here, b and P have been mixed up. The consonants B and P are formed similarly when spoken.

This shop sign demonstrates a variety of different kinds of spelling errors. (By the way, ‘chats’ are slightly cooked vegetables or raw fruits dressed with spicy powders.)

Remember that although English is one of India’s national languages, for many shop owners it is a foreign language. Hence, the diversity of spellings of common English words.

Not really…

American and English

similar lingos

sometimes different  

USA

Some years ago, I practised dentistry in a surgery near Ladbroke Grove in West London. One day while I was waiting for the next patient to arrive, I found myself alone at the reception desk, the receptionists having gone off somewhere briefly. The telephone rang. Being a helpful sort of person, I picked it up.

“Hello, this is the dental surgery,” I said.

A man with an American accent said to me:

“I want to speak with June Courtney.”

June was a dentist, who used to work in the practice.

“I am afraid she does not work here anymore,” I replied.

“Well, maybe you’re her husband?”

“No, I am not.”

“Well, maybe I can interest you in buying some bonds,” continued the trans-Atlantic caller.

“I’m not really interested,” I replied.

“Well, that means you might be a little bit interested,” the caller replied.

“let me explain something to you,” I began, “if someone English says that they are not really interested, it does not mean that they are ‘slightly interested. It is a polite way of saying that they are not at all interested; they are totally uninterested.”

“Well, thank you for explaining that, sir,” the caller said before ending the call.

I guess that sometimes it pays to speak bluntly.