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’.

The voice of the Roman

When I became a pupil at Highgate School in 1965, our first Latin teacher was an elderly fellow, the Reverend Gowing. Incidentally, there was another language teacher called Cummings.

Some of the boys in my Latin class, including me, had been taught that v in Latin was pronounced like v in ‘vine’. Other pupils and also Rev Gowing were of the opinion that v in Latin was pronounced like the w in ‘wine’. Believe it or not the question of how the ancient Romans pronounced v caused lively discussions in the Latin classes.

One day, Gowing brought a gramaphone record player into the Latin class. After placing a record on its turntable, he told us to listen carefully. The record was of a man reading a text in Latin. After a few minutes listening to this, Gowing switched off the recording and said triumphantly: “Did you hear that, boys? The reader pronounced v as w.”

I think that Gowing, who was probably almost 70 if not more in 1965, believed that the record contained the voice of an Ancient Roman, rather than someone speaking during the 20th century.

Some years later, I described this controversy about the Latin v to an Italian friend who had studied linguistics at university. She felt that although no one could be certain how the Ancient Romans pronounced Latin, it was likely that they would have pronounced v as v in vine. Her reasons were based on a study of the modern languages, which were descendants of Ancient Latin. This seemed sensible enough to me.

Both Gowing and Cummings, who taught me French and a little German, have passed away. Maybe the soul of the Reverend will have a chance to chat in heaven with the souls of the Ancient Romans. If it turns out that they pronounce v the way that he taught us, there might a a flash of lightning followed by a celestial voice booming out: “WENI WIDI WICI … I told you so, boys of Lower Fifth”. And, if the lightning has not struck me, I will shout back: “venue, video,victory.”

A nest in Macedonia

In about 1977, I travelled to Greece overland with my PhD supervisor (‘Prof) and his wife (‘Wink’). Every year they towed a caravan across Europe to their favourite camping spot near Platamon on the coast of northern Greece. They were averse to camping overnight in campsites. They preferred to camp ‘wild’ at spots of their own choosing. Their journey involved three nights in the former Yugoslavia, a country where camping outside official campsites was against the law. However, over the years they had found several places in Yugoslavia where they could camp ‘wild’. Prof and Wink were always anxious when they travelled through that country, constantly worrying that their illegal camping activities would get them into trouble. Let’s join them on the last few hours before leaving southern Yugoslavia (in what is now Macedonia) and an official campsite, where circumstances forced us to stay one night. Here are two extracts from a book, which I have not yet published.


Picnic north of Ohrid in Macedonia, 1977. The author is standing

“After lunch, we drove onwards towards the town of Ohrid that lies on the eastern shore of the lake bearing the same name. As the sun began to set, we faced a problem. Prof and Wink had never travelled to Ohrid before and knew of no places where we could camp ‘wild’. Driving along, we could see nowhere suitable to do so. Cautiously, I recommended the town’s campsite. I had stayed there a few years earlier with my friend Hugh. It was a lovely spot next to the lake shore. Reluctantly, Prof agreed that this would have to be where we should spend the night. At the entrance of the camping grounds, we had to surrender our passports in order that the camp could register our presence to the police. Prof was reluctant to let go of his passport, but when the officials assured him that they did not need it for long, he gave in.

While supper was being prepared, I took a stroll around the campsite. An elderly employee of the campsite approached me and greeted me like an old friend. When I shook his outstretched hand, I remembered who he was. I had met him the first time I camped in Ohrid for a week in the late 1960s. On that visit, I used to walk from the campsite to the town in order to do sightseeing or to catch buses from it to other places in the area.  At the end of each day, I used to walk back to the campsite, where Hugh had sunbathed all day. On one of these return journeys, this man, who greeted me so many years later, had seen me on the road and had invited me into his home to meet his family. I was touched that he recognised me…”

OHRID 1 1973

Ohrid in 1973

“… we continued our journey towards Greece on the following morning. We left Ohrid and drove across the mountains east of Lake Ohrid to Resen, where we did not stop. Had we not been in so much of a hurry to leave Yugoslavia – Wink and Prof always felt more than a little uneasy being there – I would loved to have visited the nearby Lake Prespa, which, like Lake Ohrid, shares its waters between Yugoslavia (now Macedonia or FYROM or Northern Macedonia) and Albania. Unlike the bigger Ohrid, Prespa also shares its water with Greece. In fact, the frontiers of the three Balkan countries meet in the middle of the lake. We crossed another mountain pass after leaving Resen, and then descended into the plain in which the town of Bitola stands.

We parked near a large mosque in Bitola, and then began wandering around an open market. Prof stopped by a stall selling green grapes. There were flies crawling all over them. He took out a notebook and pencil, and then pointed at a fly on one of the grapes. He was hoping to learn the local word for that particular kind of fly; he was always trying to improve his vocabulary in the languages that he encountered en-route. He even carried a miniature tape recorder in which he recorded people pronouncing words in, usually, Modern Greek. He used to listen to these recordings and try to repeat them in order to improve his pronunciation. The seller of the grapes, seeing Robert’s interest in his wares, was hoping to make a sale but could not understand what the foreigner was asking. Both parties were left unsatisfied.

OHRID 2 BITOLA 77 Train from Medzhitlija

The road from Bitola to Medzhitilija on the Yugoslav side of the Greek border in 1977

After leaving Bitola we drove southwards across a flat cultivated plain until we reached the Yugoslav customs post at Medzhitilija. We waited in a queue of vehicles until we drove under the wooden canopy over the roadway adjacent to the border officers’ cabin. Before handing our documents to the official waiting alongside the car, Prof looked up into the eaves of the steeply pitched roof and began pointing at something. The customs officer looked up and then at Prof, who was frantically leafing through a small well-worn Serbo-Croatian pocket dictionary.

“I wonder what the Yugos call a house-martin’s nest,” Prof kept muttering.

The officer looked him, puzzled rather than impatient.

“For heaven’s sake, let’s get on,” Wink shouted at her husband from her perch behind us. 

She, even more than Prof, was keen to leave the communist country where, on previous trips, they had had minor though worrying brushes with authority.

Minutes later, we were driving south along a Greek road …”

Not really…

American and English

similar lingos

sometimes different  


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.