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

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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.