Monday, November 3, 2008

Learn English ... I dare you!

There is a certain chauvinism in the world that isn't going to be so difficult to slither around ... it's not sexual chauvinism; it's not heterochauvinism or homochauvinism; it's not culinary, nor athletic, nor sartorial, academic, political, social, nor even financial.

It's the chauvinism of language. The predisposition of the Anglophone world to assume that English will take you everywhere, and the calm assumption that everyone speaks it (though some of them speak it atrociously). The casual demand that everyone learn it, and that every country post its notices in the English alphabet.

Slowly, slowly, through a centuries-long process of attrition, the English language is become ubiquitous, despite the fact that many bred-and-born Anglophones can't speak it properly ... and nor do they speak any other language, either.

Learning to speak English is a challenge best undertaken by small children whose brains are still pliant, malleable, plastic, enough for them to wrap their heads around silent letters and multiple pronunciations for redundant word combinations, such as...

enough - enuff
through - throo
though t- thawt
physics -fizziks
psychology - sai-kology
school - skool
chute - shoot
chameleon - kameeleeon
bow - bawh, bohw
bough - bahw
tough - tuff
slough - slew
Cholmondely - chum-lee (I kid you not)
Featherstonhough - fan-shaw (likewise)'s a miracle how anyone else in the world every learns to pronounce the damned language, let alone tell the difference between...

content (stuffing inside something)
content (happy, even gay)
tear (dribbling down your cheek)
tear (rip up a magazine)
compliment (paid to a great looking dude)
complement (crew)
whether (or not)
weather (bucketing down)
slay (stone dead)
sleigh (open, with one horse)
wind (a clock)
wind (takes your roof off)
right (dead on)
write (a letter)
rite (of passage)

...before we get anywhere near the vocabulary of slang...

ripoff, kneejerk, dickhead, butcher's hook, germans, hampsteads, lamebrain, keks, googs, norks, butties, sarnies, chooks, plonk, apples and pears, hookie, banged up, nocked up, clapped,
beater, rice grinder, treadlie, roadie, proofie, knobby,

...and regionalisms which are as numerous as slang, and as incomprehensible to the person approaching any other language from the outside.

...and there's also the accent. Ever wondered how a Hong Kong tourist speaking very good Chinglish manages to communicate with a guy from West Virginia or Alabama? (Or Alice Springs, come to that.)

And then there's the whole dimension of profanity ... and we're not even going to think about the slightest possibility of perhaps going there at some unspecified date in future.

But there's a book you can read: Uglier than a Monkey's Armpit. Google it. Seriously. A funnier book, I have never read -- and for writers this is what I'd call an indispensable tool of the trade. It's very valuable to know how people cuss and swear in other languages; it helps you have people getting upset at the what would really upset them, and turning deaf ears to what would actually only upset their neighbors. The book is also a good laugh.

So who can blame folks of other nations for, uh, well, things like this:

Sign in a tailor's shop in the Greek islands: Order your summers suit. Because is big rush we will execute customers in strict rotation.

Sign in a laundrette in Rome: Boys and girls, leave your clothes here and spend the afternoon having a good time.

Posted on a tap in a Scandinavian men's room: To stop the drip, turn cock to right.

Message in a Mexican hotel foyer: The manager has personally passed all the water served here.

A public announcement in Pravda: There will be a Moscow Exhibition of Arts by 15,000 Soviet Republic painters and sculptors. These were executed over the past two years.

A sign, in a Japanese hotel room: You are invited to take advantage of the chambermaid.

Back in Russia: You are welcome to visit the cemetery where famous Russian and Soviet composers, artists, and writers are buried daily except Thursday.

From Vienna, Austria: In case of fire, do your utmost to alarm the hotel porter.

And in an bar in Tokyo: Special cocktails for the ladies with nuts.

Hey, guys, it's English. Fair enough, you laugh ... but the fact is, you also know exactly what they meant, and after you finish mopping your eyes and calm down a little bit, you should remember to reward people for their efforts to learn this ridiculous language of ours.

Think about the world language ... pronounce LAN-GWIDJ.

How in the hell is anyone supposed to learn to speak English when we insist on spelling half the words with utter contempt for the end user? In fact, I can't imaging trying to learn to speak halfway decent English. Spanish, German, Italian -- fair enough, at least they look like what they're supposed to sound like. English is like French, Russian, Arabic, Chinese, Hindi. If you don't learn these languages when you're a wee little kid, your chances of learning them later are fair to poor.

So, I say, full marks to anyone who has the guts and determination to give it a shot! And to all those who haven't, and who're inclined to chuckle over things like ... "It is strictly forbidden on our black forest camping site that people of different sex, for instance, men and women, live together in one tent unless they are married with each other for that purpose" ... and if you're one of those who chuckle, relax, so am I ... but remember to award a medal to folks for even TRYING to learn English.

When's the last time you took a Russian, Chinese, Arabic, Japanese or French lesson...?


No comments:

Post a Comment