Friday, October 12, 2007

Story Jar - British English

British English

I’ve had difficulties with my English communication skills from time to time and place to place. I remember having several problems in 1984 when we went to Zimbabwe and the Queen’s English confounded me. Gill asked me if I wanted to use the loo before leaving her house and I wasn’t sure how to answer. I’d been tripped by this foreign English on several occasions already.

Everyone knows that a car has a boot and a bonnet but during the visit I learned that robot = traffic light and trolley = shopping cart. It was quite the thing when I learned that pants = under garments and trousers are the only pants that other people see. By the way, women do not discuss undergarments with store clerks under any circumstances.

One puts things into a pocket or a punnit and not a paper sack or bag. One eats biscuits, not cookies, and sweets, not candy. Juice is not the liquid squeezed from fruit but rather it is the carbonated soft drink. So, when Gill asked me about the loo, I answered honestly asking “Is that something I’ve done before?”

Now, if you are laughing, may I say to you that the spell check on Microsoft Word doesn’t know “loo” yet. Had she asked if I wanted a water-closet or even the WC, I’d have been right at home. I just didn’t know loo.

I had a conversation about my speaking ability some time in 1988 when I was standing at a bus stop in Butterworth near the island of Penang in northern Malaysia. I visited with another tourist there and we passed the time talking about where we’d been and what there was to do and what to eat when she asked where I was from.
“I’m from the US.” I told her.
“No, you can’t be,” she said.
“But, I am.” I assured her.
“But you speak English,”
“Americans speak English,” I said wondering what had suddenly gone wrong. “English is what we all speak.”
“Americans speak garbage,” she scoffed. You have grammar, diction, you can’t be American.”

Well, I don’t know where she had been or who she talked to. She was convinced that I was lying – some kind of spy in hiding perhaps. Curious.

Curiouser still I was in a taxi with the children not long after and the Sikh driver asked me a question. I couldn’t understand him so I asked him to repeat it. I tried to process his words and his accent with my English but just couldn’t figure out what he said so asked him to repeat it a third time.
“Don’t you speak English?” he barked.

It was uncommon for someone to lose patience in Malaysia. It quite startled me. I wanted to tell him that I’d been told I speak very well. I wished I had a note from the woman at the bus stop to show him as proof of my abilities but I think I just sat there feeling hot and defeated.

Then there was the time that Emilie wanted to go to Ina’s house to play. Ina’s mom asked if she could give us “a tinkle.” My face, I presume, took on a totally blank look while my brain tried to figure out what the heck “tinkle” meant. Maybe the cab driver was right.
“On the phone,” she said. “I’ll give you a tinkle on the phone.”
“Ohhhhh,” I answered. “Yes, of course.”
“Don’t you tinkle in the United States?”
“Yes,” I said, “we do but it doesn’t involve a phone.”
Had I known the word I might have mentioned the loo.

1 comment:

Emilie said...

Josh and I were both cracking up over this story today...I had forgotten these great stories!