English is a delightful language and I never cease to marvel at its richness as well as its winning eccentricities. I’ve often written about the vagaries of its pronunciation, the peculiarities of its spelling and the contortions of its grammar. Today I want to share with you a few fresh insights into how the language is spoken or, in places, distorted. First, are you aware English can be moulded to say significantly different things while using the same words on each occasion?
The credit for what follows goes to my old school chum, Praveen Singh, who’s sent me an email about a certain Professor Ernest Brennecke of Columbia University. The good professor has “invented a sentence that can have multiple meanings” simply by changing the location of a single word. Of course, catching the changed meaning depends critically on how you speak the sentence. Try for yourself:
‘Only I hit him in the eye yesterday’ (that is, no one else did). ‘I only hit him in the eye yesterday’ (that is, I didn’t hit him elsewhere). ‘I hit only him in the eye yesterday’ (that is, I did not hit anyone else in the eye). ‘I hit him in the only eye yesterday’ (that is, he doesn’t have more than one eye). ‘I hit him in the eye only yesterday’ (that is, either as recently as that or not today).
These five sentences illustrate that your meaning doesn’t simply depend on the words you use but also where in the sentence you place them and, then, when you speak, how you stress the critical word.
Sometimes, however, meaning can be defined by something else: context and the fact that in English the literal meaning is not what you actually wish to communicate. Here’s a collection of signs from countries where English is a second language and, in each case, what you will understand is not what the author sought to convey.
From a cocktail lounge in Norway: ‘Ladies are requested not to have children in the bar.’ From a hotel in Japan: ‘You are invited to take advantage of the chambermaid.’ From a Russian orthodox monastery: ‘You are welcome to visit the cemetery where famous Russian and Soviet composers, artists and writers are buried daily except Thursday.’ From an airline desk in Copenhagen: ‘We take your bags and send them in all directions.’ From a restaurant in Nairobi: ‘Customers who find our waitresses rude ought to see the manager.’ And, from two laundries in Rome: ‘Ladies leave your clothes here and spend the afternoon having a good time.’ And in Bangkok: ‘Drop your trousers here for the best results.’
And, finally, to a few distortions. Americans and Americanisms have given words we used to be familiar with altogether new meanings or needlessly devised awkward sounding phrases as substitutes for mellifluous words they no longer wish to use. The BBC website has a whole section on this. So if you want more I suggest www.bbc.co.uk. But here’s a small start: Instead of ‘double’ and ‘triple’, the Yanks have created ‘two-time’ and ‘three-time’. In place of the simple and straightforward ‘I’m well’, they all say ‘I’m good’, which, frankly, may or may not be true. Similarly, they’ve coined ‘normalcy’ quite forgetting that ‘normality’ was already available. Worst of all, when they want to say something isn’t a problem they end up asserting it isn’t an issue.
Be warned, the next time I’m feeling frivolous and mischievous I shall explore the gems of Indian English. As they say, I’ll do the needful and oblige.
The views expressed by the author are personal