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’.

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!

Thank you so much

When I was young in the early 1960s, if something was wonderful, we would have said it was “super”. Later, something super was described as “fab”. Moving closer to the present, something fab became described as “wicked”. Now, something wicked has become “awesome”, an overused word which I do not consider to be super in any way. In fact, it is used so much that I regard it as being wicked in the old sense of that word.

“THANK YOU SO MUCH” is also currently in frequent use. Call me a “fuddy duddy” if you wish, but I have problems with this expression. I have no difficulty with people expressing gratitude, but how much is “so much”? What is wrong with just “thanks” or “Thank you very much”?

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.

An Albanian outpost

In about 1480, Albanians fleeing from the Ottoman army that was invading Albaia were given land in Sicily, just South of Palermo.

They built the town of Piana degli Albanesi on this land, and it is still thriving. Most if the inhabitants speak an archaic form of Albanian as well as Italian and preserve many Albanian traditions.

This picture shows a bust of Skanderbeg in Piana degli Albanesi. George Kastrioti Skanderbeg, national hero of the Albanians, resisted the Ottoman army for about 25 years, saving western Europe from becoming part of the Ottoman Empire.

Gifts of the grateful

In the 1980s, I visited my friends in the former Yugoslavia frequently. Also, I visited Albania and what is now independent Kosovo. During my trips, I picked up a large vocabulary of Serbo-Croat, including quite a selection of outrageous swear words. Grammar has always been beyond me in foreign languages, and often in my own. My interest in Albania and my brief visits to Albanian-speaking parts of the Balkans resulted in me acquiring some vocabulary in Albanian, but far less than in Serbo-Croat. Until the 1990s, I believed that my fragmentary knowledge of these languages would be useless outside the Balkans.

gift 2

Prizren in Kosovo, pre-1990

During one trip to Belgrade, a friend arranged for me to be an observer in a clinic of a leading oral surgeon. I turned up at a large hospital and spent a couple of hours watching the surgeon reviewing a series of his patients. Although I was grateful to be allowed to watch the great man, I learned little that was relevant to practising dentistry. However, one aspect of this clinic interested me greatly. As each patient entered the consulting room, he or she presented the surgeon with a gift: a bottle, a large piece of cheese, a ham, etc.

The last patient to enter, a man in a somewhat shabby suit, entered and sat in the dental chair without having presented a gift. After his mouth had been examined, the surgeon took the patient and me out into a corridor. We walked through the hospital to a room with locked doors. My host unlocked it, we entered, and he locked the doors behind us. After a brief conversation, the patient handed the surgeon a small brown envelope, which he thrust into his jacket pocket. Then, after the doors were unlocked, the patient went one way, and we went another way. As we walked along the corridor, my host patted the pocket containing the envelope, and before bidding me farewell, said: “Pornographic photographs.”

gift 5 saraj

Poster of Marshal Tito in Sarajevo, Bosnia in the 1980s

My last visit to Yugoslavia was in May 1990.  Soon after that, wars broke out in the Balkans, and the former Yugoslavia disintegrated painfully to form smaller independent states. In the early to mid-1990s, there was terrible strife in Bosnia. Many people fled as refugees to places including the UK. In the late 1990s, Kosovo suffered badly from warfare between the Serbs and the ethnic Albanians. Many of the latter fled to the UK.

I moved from one dental practice outside London to another in London, an inner-city practice, in 2001. A significant number of my patients there had come from the former Yugoslavia as refugees. I was the only person in the practice who could greet them in Serbo-Croat or Albanian. Maybe, I was only one of a few dentists in London at that time who had this ability.

To the Albanian speakers my vocabulary was restricted to words such as ‘hello’ and ‘good-bye’, which brought smiles to their faces. Following a trip to Communist Albania in 1984, I recalled the Albanian words of political slogans such as “Long live Enver Hoxha”, “Enver’s party”, and “Long live the Peoples’ Party of Albania.” As many of my Albanian patients had come from Kosovo rather than Albania, these slogans meant little to most of them.

gift 3 travnik

Travnik, Bosnia, 1975

My limited Serbo-Croat was more extensive than my Albanian. I could entertain some of my Bosnian and Serbian patients with polite small-talk. Many of the ex-Yugoslav patients, like those I had seen long before in Belgrade, brought me gifts. Even those, with whom I felt I was not getting along with well, brought me, usually, bottles of home-made alcohol (e.g. rakia, slivovitz, and loza) that had been distilled by relatives who had stayed behind in the former Yugoslavia. These strong alcoholic drinks were delicious, smooth, and delicately flavoured. One fellow plied me with DVDs of the latest Hollywood and other films that he had ‘pirated’. One lovely lady from Bosnia presented me with a pair of earrings, which her uncle had made, to give to my wife. She wears these often, and she is very grateful.

gift 4

Many Middle-Eastern patients also felt that it was appropriate to bring me gifts. Thus, a lot of delicious baklava and other similar confections came my way. Delicious as these were, they were neither good for my teeth nor for my general health. A Hungarian family kept me supplied with large gifts of paprika powder, and there was a Romanian gentleman who brought me nice bottles of wine. Incidentally, the only words of Romanian I know are “thank you” and “railway timetable”. Once, we employed a Romanian dental nurse and I told her my Romanian party-piece “Mersul trenurilor.” She pondered for a moment and then replied “Ah, the programme of the trains.”

Once, my dental nurse, a friendly West Indian lady, and I were standing near a window facing the main road when a delivery van stopped nearby. A man was delivering trays of baklava to a nearby shop. I said to my nurse: “Why don’t you see if he’ll give us some to try?” She returned with a tray of baklava. Carelessly, because I was in a hurry to see my next patient, I put a large lump of baklava into my mouth, and then bit hard on it. As I was doing this, I heard a deafening bang in my head. The baklava was not too fresh. I had split a molar tooth into two parts, the smaller of which was loose in my gum.

gifts 1

Baklava

Unlike this disastrous piece of confectionary, the gifts kindly given to me by my patients did no harm. Furthermore, what I believed to be a useless tiny vocabulary of Balkan languages proved to be quite useful.  

Finally, you might still be wondering whether anybody ever took me aside to present me with an envelope containing pornographic photographs. To satisfy your curiosity, I can tell you that nobody did.