Sunday, July 24, 2011

Where’s Professor Higgins When You Need Him?

On trains or busses, we can overhear entire conversations of which we understand no more then half a dozen words. They just don’t speak English here. They speak Scouse, the local dialect, and when they do attempt English, well…

Most people already know how the Brits mangle “garage” (they say “GARE-azh”!) but they do it will all sorts of other words, too. They say “et” instead of “ate” and whereas everybody knows “fillet” is pronounced “fill-LAY”, they said “FILL-let”. It’s true. But after all, you say, that’s exactly as it’s spelled. Then why do they say, “Lester” and write it, “Leicester”? And “scone”! Did you know that despite its spelling, it does not rhyme with “own” but with “on”? As if you were about to say “sconce” but never finished the word.

The English say “clock” when they mean “clerk” and something close to “cloak” when they mean clock. One of the main streets here in Ormskirk (“OHMS-kuk”) is West Derby, but do they say so? No, they say, “DAH-bee”. They say “lorry” instead of truck, “trolley” instead of cart, “footpath” for sidewalk, and traffic signs, instead of saying, “One Lane Ahead” say “Single Carriageway”.

Not only that, people here completely botch numbers and the alphabet. Suppose somebody over the telephone is reading back your account number: “Haitch, double-six, zed, nought, triple-four”. By the time you’ve mentally decoded “double-six” and figured out it’s not a throw of the dice, you’ve missed the rest. It’s no wonder you have to ask for the number two or three times twice or thrice (Yes, they do say “thrice”) before you can figure out that the number is H66Z0444.

There’s even a murder mystery series by Martha Grimes featuring a valet named Rivven. I’ve spelled spelt that as it sounds; you’d go mad trying to guess how it’s written in the book. So I’ll tell you that in defiance of every principle of phonetics, it’s R-U-T-H-V-E-N.

Oh, why can’t the English
Teach their children how to speak?
Norwegians learn Norwegian
And Greeks are taught their Greek…

(Well, actually, Greeks aren’t, anymore, but that’s another topic for another day.)

Arabians learn Arabian
With the speed of summer lightning,
And the Hebrews learn it backwards,
Which is absolutely frightening!

You see? Even Henry Higgins, for all his singing about “the cold-hearted murder of the English tongue”, isn’t entirely innocent. Professor, the British may not learn English, and the Greeks certainly no longer learn Greek, but Arabs learn Arabic!


margaret said...

In Scotland we say ‘clark’ for ‘clerk’ and ‘pavement’ for ‘sidewalk’. We also say pudding for any kind of dessert from apple pie to ice cream while you seem to reserve pudding for chocolate or strawberry goop. We also curb the behaviour of our dogs (and children if you’re lucky) but call the edge of the pavement the kerb - this drove my Colorado friends insane. I won’t say mad as for you that means angry whereas for us it means, well, insane.

Funnily enough given the fillet/fillay disagreement, don’t you say ‘val-ett’ for male servant while we preserve the French ‘vallay’? And speaking of French I still marvel at ‘entrees’ on freezer cabinet doors in American supermarkets, it seems so posh for frozen food.

My personal favourite when it comes to proper names is Marjoriebanks which my poor, foreign grandmother thought meant someone called Marjorie Banks but in reality is pronounced Marshbanks.