Friday, March 19, 2010

Plain English Is Sometimes Greek to Me

HEAD’S UP: Yours Truly is still in North Louisiana trying to be the best patient advocate possible for my ailing Ma Ma. I arrived a few days after Old Girl was admitted to hospital on 31 January in atrocious shape. While much better, she is not yet well enough for me to return to Gotham where there are at least eight million stories. Dutiful daughter that I am, I remain in the southern branch of the family seat. Happily, I do have stories. And I plan to tell them.

THE differences between U.S. and UK English led George Bernard Shaw to famously remark that the nations are "two countries divided by a common language."

Having spent time in the UK and in France around a ton of Brits, I concur. Of course, they think we have it all wrong. In the United States, it’s a trunk; in the UK, it’s a boot. And there are many, many more: cookie/biscuit; can good/tin; period/full stop; line/queue; sex/shag; cigarette/fag (In the States, of course, the latter is an extremely derogatory and shameful term for a gay male) and so on. More common are elevator/lift; apartment/flat.

In other languages, meanings can be nonsensical, too. Ask someone’s age in French, and you are asking how many years they have – Quel âge as-tu – rather than how old they are. And if you are inquiring about a body’s general well-being, you’d ask him how he’s going, not how he’s doing – Comment ça -va?, Ça va? or more formally, Comment allez vous?

Back home in Monroe, Louisiana, I am discovering (or re-discovering ) that each region in the United States has its own sub-language. There are the usual different ways of saying the same thing. For instance, depending on where one lives a soft drink is a Coke/pop/soda pop/soda water/drink, etc. Similarly, a refrigerator is an ice box. A laudromat, a washerteria; a Po Boy is a hoagie is a sub.

There are days here like this morning, however, when things get really lost in translation. I walked into the office of an auto body shop and informed the young man behind the desk that I was there to get a new inspection sticker for my late aunt's car. He informed me that I was required to bring my driver’s license, proof of car insurance and vehicle registration into the office.

I was aware of this and had the required documents on my person. I was standing in the office, but to confirm that I was in the right place I asked whether I was in the office.

“Yes, ma’am,” he said.

“I’m in the office and I have the documents with me. What’s the next step," I asked, clueless.

“You have to bring them into the office,” he repeated.

I looked around the room. It was the only office in sight. I was sure of it. “I don’t understand,” I said. “I’m in the office and I have the documents. What do you want me to do with them.”

“Give them to me,” he said as if it were the plainest thing in the world.

I had not yet recovered from that exchange when a few minutes later he asked “to see” my keys.

Dutifully, I took my keys out of my pocket and showed them to him.

He said with great patience and equilibrium, “Give them to me.”

Are you following? “Let me see” also means “Give me” i.e., “Let me see the knife; let me see your phone” and so on.

Also when someone or something is “going” it is not necessarily moving. It is often stationary. It is not in motion, understand? In pointing out one of her sisters in a family portrait, the daughter of a friend said, “There she go.” In double-quick fashion, I asked where her sister was going. She smirked and scrunched up her shoulders. I used that exchange as a teachable moment, informing her that perhaps a better construction would have been, “There she is.”

“She’s not going anywhere,” said I, pointing out the obvious.

Last week in Pier 1 Imports, the young salesgirl gave me to know that the flameless candles on huge sale – the very one she’d been talking up: "there they go over there." And I found them holding down space on a shelf a couple of aisles over. They were not moving, not even a little. By now I was hip to the lingo and didn’t bother with a reply.

And the conversation I had yesterday with a guy outside the nursing home where my mother is residing, I cannot begin to explain. As I said to him, “Individually, your words make sense, but put together I do not understand them.” Alas, he couldn’t help me, but did say I was “extra-ordinary.”

Now let’s consider “cut.” This one, I was once upon time guilty of using myself. There is the verb’s more common meaning of sever/slice/chop/crop and so on. It also means “turn on/off.” Countless times in the last few weeks I’ve heard, “Cut off the light” or “Cut on the light/TV/heat/stereo,” etc.

Many here speak thusly, regardless of ethnicity, education, socio-economic status and age. I’ve put it down to Southern-speak. Our regional differences in this vast country set us apart but also make us more interesting and endearing. When it comes down to it, perhaps one should not split too many hairs if everybody understands each other, and that appears to be the case in Monroe, except for the occasional oddball like myself.

No comments :

Post a Comment

Creative Commons License
VEVLYN'S PEN: The Wright take on life by Vevlyn Wright is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 United States License .
Based on a work at .
Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at .