2/06/2006

Aluminium, Fags & Rubbers [FEBRUARY 5, 2006]

Apparently, the a in "wash" and the a in "palms" are pronounced differently. I had no idea. I’ve been speaking English for twenty-seven years now and then something like this comes up and smacks me in the face. As it turns out, I haven’t been speaking English all along... I’ve been speaking American English.

My girlfriend first pointed it out the other day. I had just done a pronunciation lesson with my adult students in class and was telling her all about it, "The way these Spanish pronounce their English is really interesting! I was doing some phonetics drills and none of them could hear the difference between the vowel sounds in ‘He bought the law’ and those in ‘Wash your palms.’"
"Which difference? The one between bought / law and wash or the one between wash and palms?" she replied.
"What do you mean the difference between wash and palm? It’s the same sound... wAAAsh and pAAAlms...."
"No, no, no. It’s wAUsh and it’s pAAAlms. Trust me."
And so an argument ensued. We always get into arguments when it comes to English. She’s convinced she’s right, and I’m convinced that I’m right – especially since I’m the only native speaker in this relationship. But my Czech girlfriend insists it’s because she’s speaking proper British English and I’m spewing out gunslinger Yankee-talk. And this time, the argument was pretty bad – almost as bad as that time I was convinced there was no such word as "aluminium". There’s no i in "aluminum", damn it! Then she took out the dictionary and, low and behold, she was right. There WAS an i in aluminium!

She was right this time too. Palms has the same vowel sound as "arm" and "father" whereas wash has the same vowel sound as "hot" and "rock". She even had an Oxford University dictionary to prove it. Still not convinced? Well, if the vowels in palms, arm, father, wash, hot and rock all sound similar to you too, then you’re in the same boat as me. You must be a Yankee. But don’t worry! I did a little research of my own – just because I think those "linguists" up at Oxford are a bunch of stuck-up bastards – and went to have a look at good ol’ Merriam-Webster who, surprise surprise, listed all of those vowel sounds as being pronounced the same way. In the end, it turns out, North American speakers are simply unable to reproduce the a in "wash" and distinguish it from the a in "palms". British English has an extra sound we never even heard about. And just imagine, I needed a Czech to tell me about it!

But it’s not only pronunciation that poses a problem. There are differences in everything from grammar to spelling when it comes to which side of the Atlantic you’re on. Slang terms are the worst. I remember once when I was living in Madrid (this was when I used to smoke) and I had also recently learned that the British slang term for cigarette was "fag". Well, I was at a bar and saw that I had run out of cigarettes and went to a table of Brits sitting by the corner. I kindly asked, "Hey guys, can I bum a fag?" Little did I realize "to bum" means to sodomize someone in British slang. They were obviously aware of the American slang usage of "fag" when they replied, "I don’t know, mate. Depends on how you like it, dunnit?!" and had a good laugh at my expense. I never bummed a fag again.

Don’t worry though. I’ve mocked countless Brits in my day too. My girlfriend and I were watching an English detective series known as Midsomer Murders once. The detective was interviewing a sweet little old lady who was cooking and asked him, "May I tempt you to a sausage, Inspector?" "No thank you, ma’am," he replied. "Well then, what about a bit of Spotted Dick and Custard?" she insisted. Eventually the Inspector gave in and accepted. Spotted Dick and Custard?! What the hell is that? Nowadays, whenever I meet someone and I’m not sure whether they’re a Brit or not, the first thing I usually say is, "I got four words for you – ‘Spotted Dick and Custard.’" If they reply and tell me it sounds like some disease you get from a Thai whore, I know they’re not British. On the other hand, if they say it’s a delicious pudding, then I leave the subject be and snicker under my breath.

Granted, these minor discrepancies in different versions of the language don’t usually hamper communication between the two types of speakers. If anything, as in my case, they make for a good laugh every now and then. But when you make a living out of teaching the most popular language in the world, it’s nothing but a headache. I’ve had a number of advanced students question me about dubious statements made while standing in front of class. When I once stated that a student had "finished his test quicker" and also done better than the rest of the students, that very student asked me why I had said "..finished his test quicker" and not "...finished his test more quickly." Grammatically, I should have used an adverb and not an adjective but American English tends to opt for the adjective instead of the adverb. How many times has President Bush said, "Our troops are doing real good" instead of "really well" and no one makes fun of him for that little faux pas. It sounds natural to us... The "Department of Strategery", on the other hand, doesn’t. Come to think of it, I guess Bush isn’t the right kind of an example when it comes to proper grammatical usage, but he does make for a good showpiece in this instance.

On the flip side, it must be even more of a headache for students of the English language. How do they know which version to use? My girlfriend, for example, always used to tell me to put the dog on the lead when I took her for walks. After a few strange looks and a confused scratch on the noggin, she realized I had no idea what a lead was and started using leash. Now when she says it, I smile and thank her for reminding me. She also once asked me, "Shall we go for a walk?" and I asked her what the formality was all about. "Shall we do this or Shall we do that – Woe is me!" She got fed up with my mockery and, again, proved me wrong by pointing to her grammar books which indicated "Shall we..." is a perfectly normal way of indicating a suggestion in Britain. But screw the books and the Queen’s English. I still teach it and say it the way nearly 400 million people back on the other side of the Atlantic do. What’s wrong with "You wanna go for a walk?" It may not be proper, but at least no one will make fun of my student when he goes on holiday to the United States and hits on that hot girl he just met. He won’t say, "Oh dear, whatever shall we do once we have finished our drinks?" but rather, "Hey baby, wanna go back to my place and catch a ride on the love train?" She may slap him either way... but at least he’ll have done it in style.

The thing is, I’ve got a lot of work to do if I want little Carlos and Juan to grow up and be able to throw out that kind of American smooth-speak to the ladies. Nowadays, they start the kids off young here in these language schools. The newest generation have all been learning English since they were five or even four years old. Don’t get me wrong – that’s great. The younger the student, the better his or her aptitude for learning a new language. The only problem is that they’ve started them off on British English so I have a lot of damage to undo. My first day of class, for example, one of the kids asked me if I had a "rubber" on me and winked. I almost sent him to the principal – with a mouth on him like that – until, that is, I realized that a "rubber" is actually an "eraser" in the UK. I told him to use "eraser" with me and none of the students have said "rubber" ever since. But hey, they’re kids. They adapt easily and listen with awe to whatever the teacher says. Not only do none of them say "rubber" anymore, but they also use "pants" and "sneakers." Screw "trousers" and "trainers." By the time the school year is done, I’ll have them saying "cool" and "awesome" too.

The only problem with all of this re-education is that I won’t be able to teach my students – young and old alike – the different vocal sounds in the phrase "Wash your palms." But then again, does anyone really care? There are ways to work around it. Besides, I’m American and I’ll teach them the English I know... "Dude, clean your hands."

12 comments:

Lisa said...

:D Cute.

Pamela said...

You know, I'm gonna cringe as I type this, but you have a valid point for yet another reason.

These kids are going to communicate on the internet, where even we old Brits, who grew up with the Queen's proper English, are now moving to American slang and spellings.

And at my age, there is one heck of a lot of work to "undo".

But, your girlfriend is also right. Never mind the numbers, we did invent the language on this side of the pond, so you ought to at least form an acquaintance with the rules before you break 'em! :)

chiri said...

Loved this one. As a Brit - and a colonial to boot, which is even worse - I enjoy using obscure Britishisms to baffle my transatlantic friends. You probably know the old cliche - two nations separated by a common language - it is so very true.

euro-trac said...

Hahaha! Very funny! I'm a Brit too and to 'bum a fag' is a perfectly reasonable way to try and get a ciggy off someone, although I haven't heard it said for years!
*******
I got married in Vegas and that morning, I had my haircut. Imagine the horror when the hairdresser asked me what I wanted her to do with my bangs!!? (Bangs? - On my wedding day aswell!)
I had absolutely no idea what she was talking about... Hehe, it only turns out that she was talking about my 'fringe' :-)

Gree C. Bunghole said...

moses has parted the waters!
israelis have retreated from the west bank!
Iraq is a free nation!

....and George has finally admitted a woman RIGHT!

((or maybe just the latter))

;)

Congrats to your lady, ma boy, Shannon would be proud.

keep up the good work.

Franje said...

Nice post. :) We Canadians were brought up with the British spelling of words, so, for example, 'colour' has the letter 'u'. At the same time, we Canucks hear no difference between the 'a' in palms, hot, wash, and rock. Cheers to Miriam-Webster! Maybe because so many of our products are from the US, like our TV programs.

woman wandering said...

Ahhh loved this ... I taught english in Istanbul for two years and I had my students saying 'G'day mate!' and winking, just like a Kiwi ... more or less.

We're something else again, I've been teased mercilessly by Americans and Brits for 'bid' instead of 'bed' and all kinds of other delights which sound normal to me.

J.Doe said...

Your post brings back memories when as an American teaching English one of my students brought his homework home with him and his daughter took it to her British English teacher who said it was WRONG. Just because English was brought to America by the British does not mean that they have any superiority claim to the language and American style English is just backwater slang. Any claim to linguistic superiority ended with their colonial rule period. They really need to get over it.

Creature Teacher said...

oh to funny! I started dating a brit and at first I couldn't understand the accent, then the phrases and when we are drunk I'm completely lost! I'm catching on though! You should've seen the horror when he explained to me about the different meanings of the word "fanny"!

Anonymous said...

((((yikes))))

~~I think j. doe has some resentment that has been stored deep inside his soul. ~~


let it out j. doe.

let it out.

Ginnie said...

I am so embarrassed, Philo. As I was cleaning out my junk box, I found your comment to one of my posts and obviously totally missed it (the computer gods didn't know it wasn't junk, I guess). UGH. Well, so now I have found another blogger somewhat serendipitously, and you're right, your blog got my attention :)

Thanks for your comment, and now here's mine!

Ms Bees Knees said...

HAHAH... better yet, dude, clean yer paws. oh and while your at it, can i bum a fag? oh wait, i have some here in my "fanny" pack. eeeesh... i could get into all kinds of trouble in the UK and not even know it.