Mar 22, 2009

Concerning the English language 'as she is spoke'

By Kaleem Omar
The bit about the language "as she is spoke" comes from a remark made by the late great American poet Ezra Pound, who could be pretty earthy sometimes about lexical matters, though his own verse demonstrates time and time again that he was, in fact, one of the twentieth century's great masters of the English language and a superb craftsman to boot. This fact was publicly acknowledged by no less a person than the Nobel Prize literature laureate T S Eliot when he dedicated his poem The Wasteland (widely regarded as the twentieth century's greatest poem in English) to Ezra Pound, calling him "il miglior fabbro" – Italian for "the better craftsman".
George Bernard Shaw, who was Irish but spent most of his life in England and was himself a Nobel Prize literature laureate, took a characteristically iconoclastic view, however, about language, politics, middle-class morality and a host of other things. He didn't think much of America or the version of English spoken in that country, and once famously remarked that "England and America are two countries separated by the same language."
In this case, however, he may well have been right. In England, route is pronounced root, as in: root, branch and tree; in America, it's pronounced rout, as in: the Lakers versus the Celtics game was a total rout – even the skimpily-clad, high-kicking cheerleaders were booed.
When you take Route 87 North out of Manhattan, you end up in Albany, the capital of the State of New York. In England, however, you could look for that kind of Route all day and never find one. Better, then, to take the Great North Road out of London and head for Rugby, the town where Tom Brown went to school and where the game of rugby was invented. It is another matter that rugby is now also played in France, where linguistic purists hate all things English – both English English and American 'English'.
To make matters even more confusing, Route 87 North is also known as Major Deegan. Perhaps, Major Deegan was an American Civil War hero who stood his ground and kept his troops from being routed by the forces of the South. Rooted or routed, one thing is for sure: when an American says schedule, he says skedule; but when an Englishman says school, he says skool.
The question is what do Americans call schools? Shools? Or what? When I posed this question to Lyce Doucet of the BBC at a dinner party at her house in Islamabad one evening back in 1989, she thought it so funny that she insisted I repeat it to her American guests. Needless to say, they were not amused.
In England, people laugh (weather permitting, of course); in America, they laff (no matter what the weather). In England, when you ask people the time, they say it's ten to three; in America, they say it's ten of three. If the English poet Rupert Brooke had been American, that line in his famous poem The Old Vicarage at Grantchester would have read: "Stands the Church Clock at ten of three?" instead of "ten to three?"
In England, eccentric old, gout-ridden Empire Hands may call upon Prime Minister Gordon Brown and hand him a petition demanding the restoration of the North American colonies. In America, however, you don't meet President Barack Obama – you meet with him. In America, even lesser mortals meet with each other, rather than simply meeting each other.
In England, things happen on Tuesday; in America, they happen Tuesday, as in: President Obama said Tuesday he didn't have any plans on his desk right now to invade Pakistan. The New York Times, however, seems to think that he does. Incidentally, or perhaps not so incidentally, the New York Times is controlled by the Jewish Sulzberger family.
In England, mobile is pronounced mow-bile (as in telephones); in America, it's pronounced mow-bill (as in Slick Willie Bill Clinton). There is even a branch of sculpture in America called mow-bills, as in the late Alexander Calder's free-form creations. There are Calder mow-bills in all sorts of unlikely places. There's even one in Chicago, President Obama's hometown.
The American poet Carl Sandburg called Chicago the "City of Big Shoulders". I can't imagine any contemporary English poet calling London that, not with the likes of the wafer-thin former fashion model Twiggy still around.
Bundle, of course, is both American and English slang for a lot of money. But what is bundling? The 1811 Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue tells us that bundling is a term used to describe the practice of "a man and woman sleeping in the same bed; he with his small clothes, and she with her petticoats on; an expedient practiced in seventeenth and early eighteenth century America on a scarcity of beds, where, on such an occasion, husbands and parents frequently permitted travelers to bundle with their wives and daughters." "The custom is now abolished," the dictionary adds, straight-faced. And a very good thing, too, that it is.
In England, there is an eastern coast and a western coast. In America, there is neither; there is only an East Coast and a West Coast – the latter being a sort of generic term for the whole 2,000-mile sweep of coastline from California's southern border to the State of Washington's border with Canada.
California, which bills itself as "The Golden State", was named by Spanish explorers for an island paradise in a sixteenth-century novel. It has beckoned dreamers ever since. Some, from the frantic gold rushers of 1849 to would-be stars of stage and screen today, have come seeking wealth or fame, or both. Others, like the mission-building Spanish priests of yore or today's fuzzy New Age spiritualists like onetime US presidential candidate Jerry Brown (aka 'Captain Moonbeam') have followed a more otherworldly call. Back in the 1960s, there was even an American Top of The Pops song called California Dreaming – pronounced dreamin', of course.
So what's a circumbendibus, then? Well, if you must know, it's English slang for a roundabout way or story, as in: I took such a circumbendibus to get to California. Here, then, is a serendipitous case of Shaw's two languages – English English and American English – becoming lexically joined at the hip like Siamese twins. Happy circumbendibusing, everybody!
But Indian writer Gita Mehta, author of Karma Cola and several other works, said: "The art of dialing has replaced the art of dialogue", though Bill Gates would say that dialing itself became passe long ago and has been replaced by push-buttons and touch-computer-screens, as in those we saw on CNN and Fox News during Obama's election.

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