Guest Article #13: For the Joy of Sharing

Idiosyncrasies Of The English Language

By C.I. Sivasubramanian
Aged 95, Retd. Director, Ministry of Commerce, New Delhi

Foreword by Venkat
Some confusions bring pain (more often than not) but there are some which bring peals of humor (if not laughter)! While the previous guest article by Ms. Mekhala explored the confusions between the literal and the figurative, this one by Mr. C.I. Sivasubramanian explores how vernacular usage differences in the English language leads to funny interpretations.

The author (my uncle) is from Coimbatore. Has been living in Delhi throughout life. He was employed with the Government of India, Ministry of Commerce and retired as Director in 1986.

Enjoy these idiosyncrasies in the typical style and sweet humor of Mr. C.I. Sivasubramanian!

Idiosyncrasies Of The English Language

It was difficult for me to comprehend American slang in the beginning, as their pronunciation was different and they seemed to talk fast (in fact the complaint was that the Indians talked fast!) There were many words, which were not understood by me. For example, I had some difficulty in explaining to the workman that the wire mesh on the window had fallen. After I led him to the window and showed him the wire mesh, he said ‘why, it is a screen’ matter-of-factly!

I did not know what a hamper was, that bathroom was a toilet, post was mail, trunk, the boot of the car! They call a lift, elevator. I was surprised once when a stranger at the end of chitchat asked me to ‘take care’, and was concerned when the schoolteacher told me that my grandson had an ‘accident’ in the bathroom. It took quite a while to pronounce McDonald’s! In this situation I was happy when an Englishman, who came to the Calgary winter Olympics said during a conversation on the TV that he didn’t understand the Americans as they spoke ‘some kind of’ English!

Shashi Tharoor, former Deputy Secretary-General of UNO, has put more succinctly the difference between England English and American a newspaper article. I give below some excerpts:

As an Indian schooled in English language I have long been fascinated by its different variants in use around the world. – from the Singaporean ‘la’ suffixed to every sentence to the Australian G day prefixed to every greeting. But most compelling are the multiple differences between the English and American English, the two languages fighting for dominance in the anglophone world. He has also given some interesting anecdotes to show the differences in understanding American English for the Englishmen, Some samples are given below.’

In my first week in a US University campus, I asked an American where I could post s letter to my parents . ‘There is a bulletin Board at the Student Centre’ he replied ‘but are you sure you want to post something so personal?’ I soon learned that what I needed was to mail a letter, not ‘post’ it (even though in the US you mail it in the post office). In Britain, one concludes a restaurant meal by asking for the bill and conceivably paying by cheque, in America one asks for the check and pays with bills.

What the Brits call the chips are fries in America, what the yanks call the chips are crisps in Britain. An English friend of mine says he nearly had a heart attack on a flight in the US when the American pilot announced that the plane would be airborne momentarily. In British language ‘momentarily’ means ‘for a moment’, and he says he thought the pilot was suggesting an imminent crash after take-off. In American English, however, ‘ momentarily’ means ‘in a moment’ and the pilot was merely appeasing the passengers. The plane took, stayed afloat, my friend’s heart stopped thudding, and he lived to tell the tale. But he understood the old adage that Britain and the US are countries divided by a common language. Anecdotes abound about the misunderstandings that arise when foreigners come to the US thinking that they know the language.

In one anecdote, a young man, in the course of a passionate courtship, tells his American girl friend ‘I will give you ring tomorrow.’ All he meant was that he would call her. But she understood him to have observed betrothal and the relationship didn’t survive the misunderstanding. Then there is the hotel that failed to understand an English guest who called to say, ‘He had left his trousers in the wardrobe’. Translators had to be summoned before the hotel staff finally cottoned on, ‘Oh you have left your pants in the closet. Why didn’t you say so in the first place?’

Sometimes you can get the right word but the wrong concept. Our former foreign minister, M.C.Chagla, once ruefully recounted that he wanted to order a modest bite from room service in a New York hotel and requested sandwiches. ‘How many do you want’, Chagla was asked. Imagining delicate little triangle of thinly sliced bread he replied “Oh half a dozen should be enough”. Six sandwiches duly arrived each about a foot long and four inches high. The language of politics is not exempt from the politics of language. When a member of Parliament in Britain ‘tables a resolution’, he puts it forward to debate and passage. When an American Congressman ‘tables a resolution’, he kills it off.

To top it, what we call ‘kosuru’ in Tamil, l give you an instance when the US customs inspector was arguing with an Indian lady at the JFK airport. ‘Madam, I could understand you better if you speak in English’ to which the madam retorts ‘Kattele poravane’, (a swear word in Tamil) I am speaking to you in English only!’
There are many hilarious tales but above are some samples.

By C.I. Sivasubramanian

Guest Article #14: Forgiveness

Guest Articles: Archives

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March 11, 2022 11:55 pm

The last one was hilarious.

When I was there in the US, while taking driving lessons – the instructor told me constantly to ‘give the gas’. She was a well built lady with a stern look and voice. After seeing me stay still despite mentioning 3-4 times, she would say ‘Give… the … gas….’ I was almost in tears cursing my ill fate in the new place. Seeing me sit quietly not responding to her frustration, she did it herself and that is when I realised .. ‘Ohhhh… clutch-u…’ the real ‘kattaila poravale’ moment 😀

March 12, 2022 1:16 am

Informative and hilarious 😂 As they say, English is a funny language and the US has adopted a totally different version of the language. Beautifully written. Our pranams 🙏

March 12, 2022 9:22 am

Oh my God! That was such a hoot! Having lived most of my adult life in the US, I feel quite comfortable with the US and Indian English and switch seamlessly between the two (or so I think!) And then we went to the UK to drop my son off for college.

While in the UK, I was rattled when I tripped over the doorway into a restaurant, but happy that I didn’t fall over. I was genuinely touched when one of the restaurant staff asked me, “you awright?” I thanked him, saying that I was ok. Only later did I realize that the ‘you awright?’ is only an equivalent of the American ‘how you doing?’ and didn’t arise out of any special concern for my safety 😀 😀

Vasu Srivathsava
Vasu Srivathsava
March 13, 2022 2:13 am

Thanks for laughs . Spot on!

March 16, 2022 1:24 pm

Namaskarams Appa,
Enjoyed reading the humourous article about American English and English English😊.
Such light reading lights up an otherwise routine life.