English is a very difficult language. I began to think more about that the other day, when I was having another hard time understanding what Americans–supposedly, English-speakers, like me–were saying. Was it their form of English that was the problem or was it English itself? Was it my background in learning and speaking English in several different English-based cultures that posed peculiar problems?
Many people would have followed Lynn Truss’s discussion in her book, Eats, shoots, and leaves. But, I do not think the main problem with English is about punctuation and whether we are loose with rules about their usage. English is very flexible, and that is often what gives it richness, but it is also a source of problems. I am not going to tackle the many problems that may arise for people who have to learn English but come from a different linguistic base. [I remember vividly a conversation with a German man who insisted that the city, Manchester, should be pronounced Menchester. My friends (born and raised in or near the city) insisted that it was Manchester or Man-chester). He remained convinced that we were wrong. ] I will touch on some problems faced by a native English speaker listening to others speaking English. Context and tone are very important, as far as spoken English is concerned. Unlike the panda, spoken English is not clearly black and white. Take a few examples, which came into my head as I was thinking about this topic:
You, Americans, slay me./You! Americans! Slay me!/You? Americans? Slay me?/You, Americans, lay me. When written, they seem clearly different. When spoken, some, especially, the first and fourth examples, could be said with the exact same tone, but would only become clear with context–we hope. In written and spoken French, for example, the verbs would be different [slay (French: tuer); lay (French: poser)], as would the sentence construction and tone.
Because of the origin of my learning and understanding of English language, I have particular problems. They may be experienced by others, but I know that my problems have a lot of causes. I was born and learned English initially in the Caribbean: in Jamaica, where spoken English has been modified greatly into its own patois (which some would like to call a language itself). In Jamaica, almost everyone speaks and understands the local patois, but most English speakers from elsewhere would strain their ears, then scratch their heads hard as they failed to understand much of what they heard.
However, in my early childhood, I was also taught to read and speak standard (Queen’s) English, supposedly as it was spoken in the mother (tongue) land. As I’ve written before, I found, on moving to England, that the mother tongue was not homogeneous. Where I landed and lived–central London–had its own variations of terms, tones, and accents. After three decades of listening to and trying to understanding how many of the different forms of British-English (and I could go on about differences coming from how the Irish, Scottish and Welsh) have modified the tongue, I went to the United States. Here, English has taken another set of routes. I know that I have only scratched the surface of the complications by dealing with the east coast variants of American English.
For many years, I have loved grappling with the way that English words and letters can be scrambled. When attending secondary school in London, as inquisitive (and we thought clever) teenagers, a friend and I loved to tackle the (London) Times crossword on the Tube (subway/metro) ride every day: cryptic puzzles, anagrams, different kinds of letter- and word-play. I love Scrabble. I love puns. So, my mind, inclination and ear became more acutely tuned to aspects of English variations.
More often, in the US, I encounter what I may call ‘elision illusion’. (I’m not sure if I am the first to coin that term. I certainly cannot find any references to it on the Internet.) These linguistic illusions are potential (temporary) mental confusions, not dissimilar to the optical variants.
Some of my trouble with American English comes from certain tendencies, for example, to pronounce ‘t’ as ‘d’. So, I falter with words such as batter (badder), writer (rider), bitter (bidder), carter (carder), water (warder) or similar. Other trouble comes from very different pronunciations: route [in the UK pronounced as the word 'root'; in the US pronounced as the word 'rout' (like ra-ut)]. Then, we have the group of words, which may have completely different meanings in common usage: for example, ‘rubber’ (UK: eraser; US: condom). We also have terms that are completely different, which is a bigger problem if you have a bigger vocabulary: some, such as ‘pacifier’ (for a baby’s mouth–US) and ‘dummy’ (UK); or ‘bonnet’ (UK) and ‘hood’ (US): car front, may be well-known, but always good for a laugh when used and misunderstood.
So, I wont belabour the many points of British-American differences here–there are many others, and the landscape to cover is immense–but will be looking for a support group to help me get over the mounting confusion.