English As She Is Spoke*

When I first arrived in Canada it came as quite a surprise to me to discover I spoke a different language, despite having emigrated here from an English speaking country (the UK).  Aisha, a more recent arrival, wrote a great blog post listing the new words she’s had to learn and I made the following comment.

“I will always remember my first day of working in Canada in 1979. I was sent downstairs to the coffee shop to buy coffee and muffins. I looked high and low for “muffins” but all I could find were “buns”   Returning without them, a patient but amused colleague had to take me back down again and explain what “muffins” were in Canada.”

Like many immigrants I was determined to pick up the lingo as soon as possible in order to become “Canadian,” and I quickly learned to say “tomayto” and “garbage” instead of “tomahhto” and “rubbish.”

While this was my first encounter with another form of the English language, it certainly wasn’t the last.  In Baku I discovered a surprising number of locals were fluent in English, even though they’d never met a native English speaker.  All their studying had been done from textbooks written in the 1950s and long playing gramophone records of similar vintage from the BBC.  As a result they all spoke like the Queen ;)  You can imagine their confusion when they encountered English speaking oil workers from Aberdeen and Houston.

I frequently found myself playing the role of interpreter between the English speaking expats.  “I’m going for ma messages, hen” (I’m going shopping, dear) would baffle the Texans, while any American reference to “fanny packs” would turn the Scots pink with embarrassment.

Amaliya, my Russian teacher, once asked me how to pronounce “ask.”  Was it a long “a” as in “park” or a short one as in “pack?”  She wasn’t happy with my answer that both were correct.  In fact even within the UK both are correct, depending on which part of the country you’re from, and don’t even get me started on my Louisiana friend who would say “Can I aks you a question?”

In Dubai there were South Africans, Australians and New Zealanders with their breezy slang, “no worries, mate” and “come for a Barbie” as well as the Indian tailor who made me “a trouser” (pair of pants), the Pakistani taxi driver who picked me up from the “backside” (rear) of my building, and my young Filipino friends who went “malling” (shopping) at the weekend.  This funny blog post lampooning “Dubai English” which it describes as a cheerful combination of Arabic, English, Hindi/Urdu and Tagalog spoken with a sing-song accent will make you smile if you’re familiar with any of those cultures.

I love the fact that so many people have taken English and changed it to suit their circumstances, whether as a first, second, third language.  Not only does it make life much easier for me, lol (my attempts to learn other languages haven’t met with much success) but it also makes for a bubbling hot pot of words and phrases that tickle my senses.

Now that I’m back in Canada I’m doing my best to speak “Canadian” again, but find I’m reluctant to give up all the fun vocabulary I’ve picked up along the way.  Perhaps I’ll settle for speaking a bit of everything; it suits my new hybrid identity.

*”English As She Is Spoke” is the title of a 19th century book intended as a Portuguese/English phrase book, notorious for its dreadful but humorous translations.

7 thoughts on “English As She Is Spoke*

  1. Oh, a wonderful post! I learned British English in school in Holland, lived in the US, then in Kenya, then in Ghana, and along the way, I made friends with English speakers from India, Scotland, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, and had all kinds of fun with the language!

    Wish I’d taken notes in those day!

    • It’s interesting how my travels have influenced my thinking on the English language. I used to think there was a “right” way and a “wrong” way but I’m much more flexible on that now. There was an article on the BBC website this past week about Americanisms that the English hate and it’s amazing how passionate people are about it. To my mind its greatest strength is adaptability, its ability to change and absorb new words, For that reason I think it will continue to dominate international business and the internet for a long time to come.

  2. I didn’t know you are from the UK!🙂 My husband is from London and we’ve definitely had some miscommunications over the years. The most confusing of which was when we were talking on the phone and he kept insisting that he had put my credit card in my “purse.” I kept telling him “I’m looking in my purse right now – in fact I’ve emptied it out and it’s not in here!” We went back and forth for a bit until I later discovered it was in my “wallet.” (which for him was purse – ha ha.

    • Aha, you’re in a mixed marriage, lol! My problem is that I’ve now spent so much time with speakers of “other” English that I mix them all up. In the same sentence I can switch from purse to pocket book to handbag. I’m amazed my friends understand me at all.🙂

  3. Definitely use it all. The word the Japanese use that I lOVE is “ne” sounds like “nay”. Works like “eh” in Canada. Used at the end of a sentence to gain agreement from the other-

    “Dinner was good ne?”

    The post from Meanwhile at the Sandpit is HILARIOUS!!

    • Oooh yes, thanks for raising the subject of “filler” words, that could be a whole post unto itself. In Azerbaijan I picked up “tak” (Russian for since, because) but which is used when you are thinking about something, almost like “hmmm” in English. And in Egypt and the UAE it was “yanni” which is the equivalent of “like” (think, Valley girls’ use of “like”). I will definitely try “nay” here in Canada, if only to see if anyone spots the difference!🙂

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