Truth Universally Acknowledged

July 13, 2012

The Varieties of English

Filed under: Uncategorized — mboesl @ 9:04 am
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England and the US share a language, obviously. This means that an American can generally express his meaning and be understood by a Briton, and vice versa. What this does not mean is that all words are identical and all modes of expression employed by either side are quite transparent to the other. George Bernard Shaw once said the US and UK were, “two countries divided by a common language.” I’ll give some examples from my experiences and travels. In South Africa (a former british colony), you might ask for directions and get the following response: “Go up the street two blocks and turn right at the robot.” This naturally causes much bewilderment to the uninitiated, who, upon arriving at the correct location, look madly around for the robot that is such a conspicuous landmark. Of course, what South Africans universally call a “robot” is of course, a traffic light.


On the subject of Traffic lights, in Great Britain, the progression is different than in the US. Our lights go: Green-Yellow-Red-Green-Yellow-Red, meaning respectively, on the West Coast: “Go-Slow-Stop,” and on the East Coast: “Go-Go as fast as you can-It’s too late, keep going.” In the UK, though, the lights do this: Green-Yellow-Red-YELLOW-Green. As a runner, I usually start crossing streets on Yellow, if cars are far enough away, as red is guaranteed to follow. However, here, it is dangerous to rely only on that. You might end up in the middle of the street as a bus legally plows through the intersection. Dangerous business.

That was a bit of a digression. What this post is really concerned about is the way anglophone countries can speak the same language, and yet have no idea what the other person means. South Africa is another interesting case study here, in terms of how races were delineated under Apartheid and how they are still described. A full African is “black,” any mix of European and African is, “coloured,” and Europeans are “white.” Thus, it is not uncommon for people to refer to themselves and their heritage as “coloured,” though it sounds obscenely politically incorrect to us Americans and our post civil rights era.

So back to the UK. There are the well known ones. We say “Policeman,” they say “Bobby.” We say elevator, they say “lift.” We say “color,” they say, “colour.” Wrench vs. Spanner, Hood vs Bonnet, truck vs lorry, trunk vs boot, bathroom vs WC or Loo, President vs Queen etc etc. The list goes on and on.

Some of the most interesting and entertaining differences are found on street signs. Imaging pleasantly walking down a street in the States and seeing the following sign:


“Bollards!” Are these some kind of prehistoric animals bent on the destruction of pedestrians? Spirits of the deep on the order of Tolkein’s Ringwraiths, Rowling’s Deatheaters or Dicken’s Ghosts of Christmases Past, Present and Future? No. Sadly, the truth is much more mundane. Bollards are simply short vertical posts used to restrict traffic in certain areas. We might say: “rising barriers” or something like that.

What about this?

Who knows what a Humped Zebra might do. Good thing they put up a caution sign. Sadly, again, there are no indigenous populations of humped zebras wandering through the misty fens and vales of modern day England. A Zebra Crossing is, we might say, a crosswalk. A hump is what we would call a “speed bump.” So all that is going on here is a crosswalk over a speed bump. I think I liked the original name better.

Finally, though this post could go on forever, we come to the most crucial distinction in all Anglo-American relations. A friend of mine went into a store and asked to buy “pants.” The shop owner looked at him a bit inquisitively and then directed him to the section of the store devoted to Union Jack boxers and briefs, asking in the politest way whether perhaps he had intended to ask for “trousers.” Trousers refer to what we call “pants” and pants refers to what we call “underwear,” if you are a man or child. For women, “bloomers” is the proper term for undergarments. You live and learn, I suppose. Always ask for trousers.

This reminds me of two little stories my grandmother used to tell. Upon arriving in the States, she spoke very little English, having just immigrated from Germany. One day, she decided to visit the store, in order to buy my grandfather a belt. Upon arriving, she realized she didn’t know the word “belt.” Unfortunately, in German, the word for belt is “Gürtel,” so my grandmother spent several trying minutes with the shopgirl explaining what her husband planned to do with a girdle.  The second story is a similar, but slightly more embarrassing, misunderstanding. A relative of my grandparents, also living in the States, had to go to the store to purchase a pillow. Sadly, the German word for pillow is “Kissin.” Armed with this knowledge, and a misplaced sense of hope, our tragic hero entered the store and bravely asked the shopgirl for “a Kissin'” She was obviously rather taken aback at the forwardness with which this gentleman had approached her. Seeing that his attempt had not acquired its desired aim, he once told the woman he needed a”kissin,'” showing with his hands the dimensions and such. Again, the message was confused. Finally, exasperated, he tried to illustrate one potential use of the pillow, by repeatedly slapping his rear end, all the while asking for a “kissin.'” This is my heritage. These stories are too perfect to make up.

Anyway, the moral of all this is that not all words in all languages are cognates, and not even all words in the same language are cognates. Keep this in mind the next time you are being chased by a rising bollard and have to stop for the humped zebra crossing: Pull up your trousers, and wait for the robot on the next corner.


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